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White Noise (2005)
Director: Geoffrey Sax

review by Tony Lee

With its supposed real-world parallels in the peculiar realm of 'psychic research' concerned with 'Electronic Voice Phenomenon' (EVP), this immodest supernatural thriller pitches its gimmicky 'psi-fi' elements and disquieting mystery-drama frills with about the same vigour as it examines the lunatic fringe science. That is to say, it leans heavily towards accepting spurious claims of contact with the dead via audio and video recordings, while reducing the central plot to nothing more than another unabashed subgenre formula piece. Best not to look or listen too closely to the irrationalities that are glossed over here, as that would only spoil the fun. Such as it is...

As the newly widowed family man, successful architect Jonathan Rivers, the ever-capable Michael Keaton provides a solid basis for the esoteric matters, struggling through a traumatic bereavement when his pregnant wife Anna (Chandra West) goes missing - later turning up dead, of course - but, unfortunately, he fails to pull together and hold onto all the fascinating and varied, yet despairingly superficial, plot threads that White Noise relies upon so heavily for its effectiveness as tragic melodrama. After Anna's mysterious disappearance, Jonathan is approached by eccentric 'spiritualist' Raymond Price (Ian McNeice, with a low-key characterisation, in a smart example of casting against type: well, try and imagine someone like Christopher Lloyd, who might have wrecked the film's delicate ambiance with one of his routinely OTT 'crackpot' performances, in the role!), who claims to have received messages from Jonathan's deceased spouse, and suggests that the recordings he's made might help overcome Jonathan's lingering grief. However, Jonathan eventually discovers (oh, the horror!) that Raymond's technological connection to the 'other side' is not just a one-way conduit and, pretty soon, he's in trouble with disbelieving authority (for knowing too much about homicides) and in mortal danger from sinister astral forces that have apparently returned from the afterlife.

It hardly needs saying that this sort of thing offers almost nothing in the way of originality. From Nigel Kneale's classic TV tale of a 'magic-medium' The Stone Tape, and Mark Romanek's cultworthy Static (1986), to the plethora of recent ESP chillers (such as The Gift), engagingly weird conspiracies (The Forgotten) and downright bunkum (Soul Survivors), the whole psi-fi arena has largely fallen into disrepute since the heady video-age days that bought us Poltergeist (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), Dreamscape (1984), and Angel Heart (1987). I think it was actually 1990 when the self-destructive subgenre itself passed over. That year gave us enjoyable tosh like Rockne S. O'Bannon's Fear, but also the awful romantic tripe of Ghost. Since then, every addition to the psychic thriller cycle (most recently, there's TV series Tru Calling) faces the prospect of a lengthy exhumation ceremony - or at least a desperate resuscitation process - to reawaken acutely sceptical viewers' interest in the material.

It's become all about finding a fresh angle of attack on the existing lore. As if (perhaps correctly?) intuiting that 'mere' contact with spirits would certainly not be intriguing or sensational enough for today's demanding audiences, White Noise embraces numerous other aspects of precognition, aberrant phantasms, and hallucinatory visual-effects spookiness, and so we get some pretty astute borrowings from What Lies Beneath and Stir Of Echoes. But unlike those two agreeable examples, White Noise lives up to its title by attempting to contain too much all at once. It's hard to avoid the spectres of past supernatural thrillers, but screenwriter Niall Johnson, and director Geoffrey Sax (the maker of overlooked time-travel franchise failure, Doctor Who: The Movie), spoil their film's remix of familiar themes by throwing surplus backstory set-pieces for the group of bland supporting characters (including the suicide-prone EVP-believer, Sarah Tate, played by Deborah Kara Unger), a wanton serial killer, a climactic race-against-time rescue mission for the stressed hero, and last-minute, gasp-and-throwaway, revelations into their already overburdened production.

Yes, the final reel is brimming over with bits of business, keen to escalate the obvious impending tragedy into personal apocalypse mode, and follows the dictum that human sacrifices must be made to save anything worth saving. That said, director Sax and star Keaton do an efficient if uninspired job throughout earlier sequences, guiding us into the virtual subculture of mediums, psychic investigators, and message-from-beyond cultists (it's made clear that Raymond Price is not alone in patrolling the ether and connecting encoded dots buried in seemingly random electronic interference). Although it's never as genuinely scary as the Pang brothers' superb The Eye, this is not bad overall, and worth seeing, if not worthy of strong recommendation. If you're a fan of psi-fi stuff, it should not disappoint, just as long as you don't expect too much from it.
White Noise

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