Horror’s a difficult genre to deal with properly, in terms of sifting through the stuff to separate wheat from chaff and dross from gold. Of course, one of the more difficult things is dealing with the complete and total (absence of) shock that is the non-binary nature of this process. There are few (if any) critics or even trends (ie, Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, etc) that are meaningful to a horror fan, because too much of the score is affected by people who simply cannot accept some parts of the genre. As a result, short of a unanimously positive score, or very high-leaning one (even then, there are issues with trusting such a thing), it’s impossible to know what drove ratings downward. This means that sometimes I take gambles, despite reputations, and pick things up that are largely panned. White Noise (with an 8% at RT, 5.5 on IMDb, and 30 on Metacritic) is obviously an example of that.
Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) is a re-married father to his son Mike (Nicholas Elia), and lives rather comfortably on his income from an architecture firm with his new wife Anna (Chandra West), a best-selling writer. When Anna disappears, Jon understandably begins to fall to pieces. The socially clumsy appearance of Raymond Price (Ian McNeice) involves stated confirmation of his wife’s death, but he dismisses Price, who claims to have received posthumous contact. When Anna’s body is found, an unexpected moment leads Rivers back to Price as he begins to explore the investigations of electronic voice phenomena (EVP).
There are a fair number of striking things about this movie–mostly on the technical end. Geoffrey Sax and everyone involved in sound and visual deserves credit that the amalgamated scores most definitely don’t indicate. There’s a fascination with technology–whether relevant to the processes of exploring EVP or simply in general. Close-ups of traffic lights, or, particularly, the mechanisms in analogue, tape-based recording, are held in sharp focus at various moments. The palette is largely matched to the one implied through the thematic content–very monochrome, very sterile in some ways. Not Kubrick-sterile, but clean and white through much of it, fittingly, for a film that is often about grief and grieving, in its fashion.
Sound is mixed in unusual fashion–drawing attention without distracting. Dialogue is not always perfectly audible, when the scene is already conveyed cleanly by Keaton and the rest of the cast, as well as the events and setting around them. The score, by Claude Foisy, is the antithesis of the last one I heard, hitting all the right notes (ahem) to help to describe scenes when words are unspoken or unheard. The EVP itself is mixed well enough that it doesn’t become unnaturally clear, with some recitation from the in-movie listeners where it makes sense, just in case it’s not even naturally clear at points.
Niall Johnson’s story, too, makes interesting choices: the first good bit has nothing to do with the supernatural, and has everything to do with setting up the Rivers’ life, and Jonathan’s grief over Anna’s disappearance and eventually confirmed death. Price is jittery and clumsy about his attempts to assist via a means that Rivers finds absurd and ridiculous. When it begins to shift, it doesn’t turn into a simplistic ghost story, or a crusade against evil, or an attempt to “save” Anna’s soul or anything like that, and doesn’t lose sight of its creepier elements.
If there’s one thing that did really bother me, it was just leaning on EVP as anything real, though that comes down to something too personal to be meaningful as a film-making choice. For plenty of people, that will make things much scarier, more disturbing. When I was younger, I imagine it would have done the same to me.
In the end, this is definitely one where I am pretty well lost on what is so loathed about this one–certainly it’s not ground-breaking, or the seed of things to come or anything that was unfairly denied reward or award (beyond the financial, which it got). It was, so far as I can see, strangely maligned, as if it were expected to be something other than what it was. Which, in my experience, is one of the most common criticisms of horror movies, to my ever-lasting confusion. You don’t need to run out and see this one, but I don’t think doing so would be near so awful as you may have been led to believe.