There just aren’t enough horror movies in which ghosts use modern technology to communicate with the living. Television is the medium that has pioneered depictions of high-tech ghost communication. Two classic Twilight Zone episodes featured telephone calls from the dead, and nearly as entertaining was a hilarious episode on the topic of ghost photography in the ’70s investigative show In Search Of . . . (Best quote: “There have been some [spirit] photographers that have apparently never resorted to fraud—or practically never”). White Noise deals with audio and video recordings of otherworldly beings, known in the paranormal biz as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), but the filmmakers fail to exploit the advantages of their material.
The movie gets off to a strong enough start. Jon Rivers (Michael Keaton) is an architect whose novelist wife Anna (Chandra West) dies suddenly and mysteriously. In a short amount of screen time, Keaton and West establish themselves as a husband and wife who are crazy about each other—a task that was probably tougher for the stunning West than the older Keaton. As the bereaved husband struggles with his grief, he meets a man (Ian McNeise) who claims that he records messages from the dead, including Anna.
The early scenes of Jon analyzing footage are the best in the film and they justify the choice of subject matter. The inchoate sounds and images flitting across the static offer viewers a chance to let their imaginations run loose, conjure frightening images, and try to puzzle out the meaning of the apparent messages. In these sequences, director Geoffrey Sax also constructs a nice contrast between the paranormal images on the screen and Jon’s anxious-looking reflection.
Jon wonders whether his late wife is telling him to take action—or whether someone else is—and that is where the movie begins to fall apart. Keaton’s character fails to connect with the audience, partly because the actor is afforded little room to operate. During crucial emotional sequences, when the ravages of his dilemma should show on his face, he often ends up facing away from the camera or simply buries his face in his hands. Jon’s obsession with death isolates him from others, but that group shouldn’t include the audience.
Sax and writer Niall Johnson try to give the story an enigmatic quality and for that reason they deliberately leave a fair amount to interpretation. However, that doesn’t stop White Noise from being terribly conventional. Particularly grating is Sax’s overuse of the worn-out tactic of building suspense and then having danger burst into the shot from the side, accompanied by a musical crescendo. As cheap horror-film tricks go, that one is just above the mild electrical shocks administered to audiences of The Tingler.
The filmmakers also employ a number of handy cliches about people who hear voices, including a visit by a sensitive psychic who gives Jon the standard warning about the risks he is taking. The last few shots in particular are staggeringly predictable, despite the filmmakers’ efforts to maintain a sense of mystery. White Noise is a frustrating experience. The film’s strong premise makes it even more disappointing than similarly weak efforts in the horror genre.