As the likelihood of finding an original concept in the horror genre grows increasingly thin, filmmakers are scouring the world of the supernatural for obscure plots and gimmicks. The result of this desperate search is films like “White Noise”, which is based upon the idea of ‘EVP’, better known to those who care as ‘Electronic Voice Phenomenon’. Basically, the idea behind this is that the dead can communicate with the living through the far end of the electronic spectrum, manifesting messages through static on radios, television screens, and so on. Whether or not this is plausible is pretty much a moot point, as the average horror fan is generally quite accepting of fantastical and outlandish narrative themes, and suspension of disbelief is a virtual prerequisite for the enjoyment of most genre films.
What the horror fan should not be prepared to accept, however, is the use of a vaguely intriguing idea to mask the same tired, recycled plot lines, cheap scares and borrowed surprises. Unfortunately, “White Noise” falls into this depressing category, hiding a complete lack of innovation behind an interesting conceit, a masquerade which becomes apparent all too quickly. This is a shame, as the film itself is competently made, with an acceptable amount of unoriginal scares and a pleasingly low-key approach to what could have easily been turned into a CGI heavy schlock-fest. Where the film fails, and fails badly, is in its shoddy script and plotting, both of which have no idea where to go beyond the initial premise, and unwisely falls back on an unconvincing central character and an illogical progression of events, before limping awkwardly into a conclusion which appears to have been spirited in from another feature entirely.
At the start of the film, we are introduced to Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), a successful architect with a loving authoress wife (Chandra West) and cute moppet of a son. All seems picture perfect, until wife Anna disappears after a night out, with all signs pointing to a tragic accident. However, before her body has even been recovered, Jonathan is visited by Raymond Price, an eccentric practitioner of EVP who claims to have made contact with the missing, and apparently deceased, Anna. Understandably, Jonathan dismisses Price as a crank, an opinion he is forced to reconsider after the corpse of his wife is found in an abandoned factory, and he starts witnessing a number of strange phenomena that suggest she may be trying to contact him from beyond the grave.
Jonathan is quickly drawn into the world of EVP, at first through Price, and later through his own increasingly desperate efforts. His initial skepticism gradually gives way to obsession, as he becomes convinced that Anna is not only trying to talk to him, but also to warn him. With the aid of a fellow believer (Deborah Kara Unger, “A Love Song for Bobby Long”), Jonathan begins his own investigation into the mystery, a search which appears to be dragging up not only sinister secrets, but also a malevolent force that seems hungry for mayhem.
The plot, when condensed as above, sounds interesting enough. However, when the idea of EVP is taken away, what remains is little more than a series of cliché and contrivances. “White Noise” is the kind of film in which vaguely unpleasant things happen to nice, rich people who live in waterfront properties, a fact which immediately alienates the viewer and makes it very difficult to care for the characters. This kind of stereotype is all too common in Hollywood horror, and is often used by filmmakers as a lazy, insidious way of getting viewers to fill in the character details themselves: white, upper middle class, good job, vaguely creepy child, etc.
Matters are not helped by the fact that British TV director Geoffrey Sax seems reluctant to explore the characters, a strange decision given that the film spends almost all of its time with protagonist Rivers. Since we are given no real insights into his behavior, other than the disappointingly one dimensional motivation of grief, his abrupt plunge into obsession is rather unbelievable, and the viewer is never convinced that such a rational, dull man would ditch his everyday life for skulking in the dark, squinting at television static. Herein lies another narrative flaw, in the fact that any effects of Jonathan’s obsession are neatly glossed over and ignored, as problems such as missing weeks of work and having to take care of his child are taken care of with quick phone calls. There is no sense of effort, panic or mania to Jonathan’s addiction to EVP, and as such the viewer feels no kind of tension or fear for the outcome of his lightly taken decisions.
All this would have been more forgivable if the rest of the film had been well paced or cunningly plotted, but again, Sax takes a safer, shockingly pedestrian route. Aside from borrowing scenes liberally from the Japanese “Ringu” series, almost everything in the narrative progresses through convenience, or at best through other character doing the work for Rivers and simply handing him information on a plate. There are a number of gaping holes in the plot, especially during the weak conclusion, which would have been all the more depressing if it wasn’t signaling to viewers that their ordeal is nearly over.
This lack of conviction by the director means that it is difficult to feel any kind of excitement at all, and it rapidly becomes clear that Sax is far more concerned with the minutiae of EVP itself rather than throwing in any thrilling set pieces or scare scenes. Although this is a change from the quick fix, cheap shock style of many modern genre efforts, the fact of the matter is that a horror film without horror has about as much point as low alcohol beer.
To be fair, “White Noise” is not wholly without merit, and it is, for most of its drawn out running time, quite interesting, though for the explanations of the central idea rather than through any kind of concern for the characters. Sax does manage to drum up an atmosphere of sorts, and there are a few creepy scenes, though these do tend to rely on cliché such as blue neon, dry ice and loud electronic noises. Unfortunately, even these are few and far between, and are simply nowhere near enough to save the film from being a disappointing, dull mess.
Geoffrey Sax (director) / Niall Johnson (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Keaton …. Jonathan Rivers
Chandra West …. Anna Rivers
Deborah Kara Unger …. Sarah Tate
Ian McNeice …. Raymond Price