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Should N.D. fear 'The Messengers' message?

It's hard to comment on a movie when you've barely seen even its trailer, but North Dakotans concerned with how their state's character and culture are perceived may wonder about "The Messengers."...

It's hard to comment on a movie when you've barely seen even its trailer, but North Dakotans concerned with how their state's character and culture are perceived may wonder about "The Messengers."

The film, which opens Friday in Grand Forks and nationwide, is about a Chicago family that moves to a North Dakota farm where their children - a teenager and a small boy - try to warn them that terror lurks in the big old house on the prairie.

"Amidst the tranquil sway of the farm's field of sunflowers," "The Messengers" plot summary reads, "Jess, 16, soon realizes how terrifying seclusion can be when she and her brother, Ben, 3, begin seeing ominous apparitions invisible to everyone else."

"Isolation, isolation, isolation. We're the only ones living here" is what that plot summary says about rural North Dakota to Jan Webb of Bismarck, executive director for North Dakota Council on the Arts.

Made in Canada

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Actually, "The Messengers," starring Kristen Steward, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller and John Corbett, was filmed in Canada, near Regina, Sask.

The film's trailer, which can be seen online at www.apple.com/trailers/sony_pictures/themessengers/ , depicts innocent little Ben wandering through the bleak corridors of a rundown farmhouse which, in exterior shots, looks as if it hasn't been painted in 50 years.

The teenage girl walking through a bright sunflower field is startled by something furtive that scurries among the plants.

The family has moved from Chicago to remote North Dakota, where there's no cell phone reception, according to the trailer. No one really knows what became of the farm's previous residents.

At one point, the mother says to her teen daughter, "It's easy to understand getting scared out here."

Scary Fields State?

What might people think of North Dakota if they see its fields and farms portrayed as sinister and scary?

It's hard to know, but the image it presents is "not great," said Kim Schmidt of Bismarck, public and media relations director for the North Dakota Department of Tourism.

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"It's a horror film," Schmidt said. "We don't want it to personify North Dakota."

The movie "Fargo" was released 11 years ago. While the film was set mostly in Minnesota (though portions were filmed in northeast North Dakota), Webb said people still ask her about the Academy Awards Best Picture nominee whenever she goes to national meetings or other places away from North Dakota.

"(They ask) 'Does that really represent North Dakota?'" Webb said, "because people really are not familiar with North Dakota. If that's the perception, between that and the national winter weather reports, I think they think we live in this isolated, backward, horse-and-buggy state."

"I don't think the idea of wide open spaces is a bad thing," she continued, "because I think a lot of people envy that. But the word 'isolated' is not a good term. Nobody wants to be isolated from the world, and we're not, really."

Classic movie device

Chris Jacobs of Grand Forks, a film instructor at UND and an independent filmmaker, has not seen "The Messengers" either. He believes the movie's effect on people's perceptions will depend on how critical the location of the movie is to the story.

The movie could reinforce the stereotype of North Dakota - that it's a big empty place full of abandoned farms, he said.

Jacobs said taking a person, place or thing that seems innocent and safe, only to make it scary, is a classic horror movie device.

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"That's why you have so many films about little kids who are possessed," he said, "because what's more innocent than little kids?"

Tobin reports on arts and entertainment and coordinates the Teen Page. Reach her at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or ptobin@gfherald.com .

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