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Case Number 07116

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White Noise

Universal // 2005 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // July 4th, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Dennis Prince invites you to lean an ear closer to your PC speakers to experience the phenomenon of EVP. That's right. Lean closer. FRRRT! 'Scuse me.

Editor's Note

Our review of White Noise (HD DVD), published February 2nd, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

"Electronic Voice Phenomenon is the recording of paranormal voices, on all sorts of recording media, that should not be there."—Lisa Butler, co-director, AA-EVP

Opening Statement

It's one thing to suspect there are spirits lurking in your home or some other place you've visited, maybe offering transient peripheral glimpses of a form or figure that's gone just as soon as you thought you saw it. It's another thing to actually hear the voices of spirits and maybe even see faint and shifting images of them that you can play and replay on any number of today's electronic recording devices. Therein lies the premise of White Noise, in which a man finds himself swept up in a paranormal experience that will test his own ability to believe in the heretofore unknown in the face of a tragic loss.

Facts of the Case

Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton, Batman) has the idyllic life: a thriving career in architectural design, a lovely wife, Anna (Chandra West, The Perfect Son), who has just completed a widely anticipated new novel, and an adoring young son from a former yet amicably terminated marriage. When Anna passes away in an auto-related accident, Jonathan can find no release from his grieving despite his attempts to relocate his home and stay busy with his work. Unannounced, Raymond Price (Ian McNeice, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) approaches Jonathan and shares that he's been receiving paranormal messages from the architect's dead wife. Eventually, Jonathan visits Price and learns about the vastly uncharted realm of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) and hears an actual recording of Anna's voice within the white noise of an audio recording. Jonathan also meets Sarah Tate (Debra Kara Unger, Thirteen) who is likewise grieving after the loss of her fiancée and has found that Price has recorded messages from the dead beau as well. But meddling in the realm of the undead is not for amateurs as all three soon learn when destructive spirits begin lashing out at the Earth-bound paranormal dabblers. Jonathan soon discovers that he has become a conduit for EVP contact and that his own life can be in danger as a result of his efforts to reconnect with his departed spouse.

The Evidence

Oh come, all ye skeptics, and have your way with the paranormal phenomena being purported in this mildly effective supernatural thriller. Setting aside the whole EVP element for a moment, the film itself is generally well directed and veteran actor Michael Keaton performs admirably to misdirect us from some severe lapses in logic and plausibility. He's brings his usual piercing eyes and razor-sharp eyebrows to the proceedings as he, too, seems to struggle with his own disbelief of the evidence that McNeice as Price presents. It's difficult to believe, then, that the character of Jonathan would accept this phenomenon wholeheartedly at first exposure and without any suspicion of being exploited for his level of business success or his dead wife's literary achievements. But, he accepts it all and immerses himself within it, seemingly scaling the steep learning curve that must accompany all the hardware and investigative technique that must come along with becoming proficient at monitoring and capturing EVP. And, in the end, we are asked to believe that persons deceased don't necessarily "move on" but remain here among us, existing in the slight but apparently-present gaps in the white noise of our daily existence. Hmmm.

Call it hackneyed and hopeful, but there does seem to be something of interest in the core concept of White Noise. Unfortunately, screenwriter Niall Johnson never quite gets over the wide-eyed wonder of EVP's premise to truly do much significant with the idea. Granted, it's not the sort of thing to simply convert into a freak show or horror fest as, whether you or I believe or not, others do believe and their emotions and deep feelings of loss are not to be tossed aside blithely. Still, because the picture was pitched as a supernatural thriller, we'd expect some amount of sustained intensity and terror and White Noise certainly could have delivered; it didn't. Instead, we get a gathering buildup that never quite pays off, absent of the sort of situational shocks along the way and woefully bereft of the sort of white-knuckled climax we'd anxiously anticipate. Indeed, it seems that more was available to frighten us with (the deleted scenes will point to the fact that the film was consciously tailored and trimmed to gain the coveted-yet-constricting PG-13 rating, although somehow, I see this picture appealing more to a crowd of R-rated scare-goers rather than an auditorium of pimple-faced pre-pubescents). In the end, we get a picture that drips with some of the atmosphere that could make for an excellent ghost story yet never takes flight. What a waste.

On DVD, White Noise performs better than it actually is, beginning with a stellar transfer that's one of the better ones I've seen in a long time. It's an amorphically enhanced widescreen transfer framed at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The close-up photography of the plethora of electronic equipment is simply excellent, especially in the opening sequence as the camera pans across the mesh screen of a boom-box speaker without any hint of aliasing or moiré effect. The contrast is well managed from start to finish as much of the action takes place in low-lit settings yet never degrades into murky or muddy images. It's a nice transfer, full of detail, and one that I would consider top rate. The audio is presented in a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that works best during the few jolt sequences where the white noise world infiltrates our space; that's when the rear channels jump into action without warning to provide a punch to the film's few jumpy scares. Otherwise, the soundstage remains mainly anchored to the front channels with decent separation effect.

So, how about some extras? Well, White Noise does another generally decent job there but, again, doesn't take full advantage of its potential. First up is a rather interesting audio commentary that utilizes a satellite line (or was it just a really expensive long-distance phone call) where director Geoffrey Sax, from a London recording studio, joins lead Michael Keaton in Hollywood for a nice interactive analysis of the picture. Sax is good at keeping the discussion going and Keaton is refreshingly generous about interjecting thoughts and insight of his own. This is one of the better commentaries I've heard in a while.

Unfortunately, the balance of the extras found here are not actually related to the film, but focused on the study of EVP. Three featurettes, then, explore this little-known study of capturing the voices of the deceased. "Making Contact: E.V.P. Experts" is an eight-and-a-half minute presentation of where noted experts and private citizens share their actual recordings of the voices of deceased loved ones. The American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena (AA-EVP), founded in 1975 by Sarah Estep, is featured here as we sit in a segments of an group conference where attendees, equipped with hand-held voice-activated integrated circuit recorders, attempt to capture the voices of those who have passed on. Now, if you think you'd like to try EVP yourself (take care to not "meddle," as the film's plot implies), then the four-minute "Recording the Afterlife at Home" presents AA-EVP co-directors, Tom and Lisa Butler, who explain how easy it is to capture voices from the other side. They also provide information about their Web site (noted in the "Accomplices" section) where they've published step-by-step instructions. Careful, now. And, lastly, recognizable TV-magazine host Jim Moret takes us along with Tom and Lisa Butler as they explore the mystery of EVP in the famous Hollywood Holly Mont Castle and to Chicago's Excalibur nightclub, both destinations said to be rich with paranormal activity. The 15-minute featurette does well to impart the certain spookiness of dealing with elements of the supernatural and this is, by far, the best of the featurettes on this disc.

There is one more bit of extras here which are actually film-related and that is a collection of five deleted scenes (with optional commentary from director Sax). Three are relatively innocuous yet the last two display some of the graphic elements that needed to be cut to ensure the PG-13 rating. It's too bad, really, as this film could have benefited from a dose of graphic content and a more intense spookiness to make it R-rated and far more captivating. Strangely, there's no theatrical trailer or TV spots to be found here. Perhaps they were lost in the white noise of Universal Home Video's studio.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Perhaps I'm being too harsh here or expecting this picture to be some sort of fright-fest that it was never intended to be. As it exists, White Noise is an "all-right" picture but I see so much atmosphere and directorial and production design talent here that never crested the hill to arrive to the land of exceptional filmmaking and storytelling. And, I'm just not a fan of imposing edits simply too gain a PG-13 rating, especially since many like myself see such a branding as a clear sign that this is a picture that would probably leave you feeling that far too much was left on the editing room floor (just as when we used to watch TV broadcasts that would issue the death knell, "Edited for Television").

Closing Statement

If you're looking for a so-so ghost tale, then you'll probably find a reasonable amount of entertainment in White Noise. Unfortunately, I found the obvious talents of Michael Keaton and director Geoffrey Sax to have been gelded along the way and prevented from reaching the level of punch and impact that I think could have otherwise been delivered. I'd probably recommend a rental in this case.

The Verdict

While it's not a crime to fail to reach obvious creative potential, this court does take exception with the needless constraining of the talent and subject matter here. Therefore, Universal Pictures is hereby put on probation and admonished to resist the temptation of curtailing creative efforts in the name of coveted MPAA rating designations.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 97
Audio: 93
Extras: 81
Acting: 95
Story: 89
Judgment: 91

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
• Spanish
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurettes

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