Why do millions of us keep shelling out good money to go sit through movies that frighten the snot out of us?
The armchair psychologist's answer: for reassurance. For that vicarious thrill ride we can send our senses on while the back of our mind knows good and well that everything's OK, the real world still exists and isn't it nice that we don't have to battle evil flesh-rending demons like the folks on the screen?
Director Geoffrey Sax ("Othello") feeds our need for ersatz fear with a textbook suspense thriller, "White Noise," a movie that will have you clinging to your date with terror but breathing easy once you hit the parking lot.
But if "textbook" means "effective" and "proven," it also denotes "predictable" and "cliched." Sax may raise the hair on your neck with dozens of classic buildups and several good "gotchas," but he doesn't introduce any new ideas that would make "White Noise" the edgy, disturbing film its previews tout.
From the very first shot of a sunny suburban Seattle neighborhood set to a creepy "Exorcist"-like piano score, audiences are primed for a story where everything is not OK. We almost get impatient with the first five minutes depicting the happy home life of architect Michael Keaton and his perfect wife Chandra West. Obviously, something terrible is going to happen, so let's just get on with it, shall we?
Obligingly, the something is West's sudden disappearance and, weeks later, her dead body, found washed up in an industrial area. After several more minutes of film giving viewers time to identify with the grieving husband, a kindly stranger (Ian McNeice) informs Keaton he's been receiving messages from dead wifey over his paranormal recording equipment (tuned for EVPs, or "electronic voice phenomena").
Now we're getting somewhere. Keaton quickly dispenses with the requisite stages of denial, skepticism and acceptance and rushes headlong into obsession, straining to hear his wife's voice in the static between radio stations or see her image in the "snow" on a video monitor.
The suspense begins for real when we start to get the idea that she's not the only one trying to get a message through, and not all the messages are pleasant. In fact, Keaton seems blind to the overtly malevolent broadcasts from a shadowy trio, despite nasty events befalling McNeice and fellow EVP contactee Deborah Kara Unger.
Director Sax masterfully exploits the rule of "the less seen, the scarier," letting viewers' imaginations do the work of 100 special effects guys. Visually, he builds an unsettling pace with atypical camera angles and taut editing while Claude Foisy's musical score takes viewers to the edge of their seats with literally every door the psychotically driven Keaton opens.
All of this buildup has to culminate somewhere, and Sax eventually has to force the ending audiences have worked so hard to dread. The effects guys get to earn their paychecks, the credits roll and life returns to normal outside the theater - but for one last good shiver, think back to those seemingly blank video screens of an hour ago.
Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and language
Starring: Michael Keaton, Chandra West, Deborah Kara Unger, Ian McNeice
Directed by: Geoffrey Sax
Length: One hour 41 minutes
Now playing at: Astoria Gateway Cinemas, Cannes Cinema Center in Seaside
Short take: Michael Keaton stars as a widower obsessed with receiving messages from his dead wife through the static in radio and TV transmissions. Though it deals in the supernatural, "White Noise" is a classic suspense flick that builds and builds but ultimately has nowhere to go.
Rating: Two and a half stars (out of four)
Movie trivia: Before he was Batman or even Mr. Mom, what was Michael Keaton's first job in show biz?
Answer: Keaton's first job in entertainment was as a stagehand on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."