January 29, 2009

Uninvited, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Uninvited, The

HORROR/THRILLER:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-01-30

Running Length:

1:27

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.85:1

Cast:

Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Banks, Jesse Moss

Director:

The Guard Brothers

Screenplay:

Craig Rosenberg and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, based on the motion picture by Jee-Woon Kim

Cinematography:

Dan Landin

Music:

Christopher Young

U.S. Distributor:

Dreamworks

Subtitles:

none


The temptation is to think this: Just what we need - another PG-13 remake of an Asian horror film. These come along so frequently that they have become more like punch lines to bad jokes than serious cinematic endeavors. Not so fast, though. The Uninvited may initially seem like a clone, but it's not. It attempts to break the mold and branch out in unexpected directions. Whether or not it succeeds will depend largely on individual preference. The film's resolution is anything but airtight and there are some potholes along the route it travels to get there, but it makes the experience of sitting in a theater more enjoyable than one might suspect given the history of other movies in this inexplicably popular subgenre.

Those expecting a traditional ghost story may be disappointed. Although The Uninvited contains some horror elements, features a suitably creepy atmosphere, and highlights a few "boo!" moments, the supernatural aspects of the film are red herrings. This is much more in line with the popular late-'80s/early-'90s thriller genre in which a psycho wormed his or her way into a character's life in the guise of someone helpful. (Think of titles like The Stepfather, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry, etc.) The "ghosts" play a part in the proceedings but not the one most viewers are likely to expect.

Teenager Anna (Emily Browning) is being released from a mental institution after spending a year there following the tragic death of her mother. In the wake of that event, she experienced partial amnesia and has been having bad dreams. The house she returns to is strangely cold. Living there are Alex (Arielle Kebbel), her sassy older sister; Steven (David Strathairn), her loving father; and Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), her dad's new girlfriend. Anna doesn't trust Rachael, who was her sick mother's caregiver for the period leading up to the tragic "accident." Since Anna doesn't remember that night, she has a lot of questions - questions that are amplified when apparitions appear to her and hint that Rachael might be guilty of more than seducing Steven. Then a local guy, Matt (Jesse Moss), confides to Anna that he was a witness to what really happened.

The Uninvited gets a lot of mileage out of setting up certain expectations then using them against the audience. It doesn't always play fair but the results show daring and place storytelling above the tired horror practice of wallowing in stock cliches and atrocious dialogue. Unfortunately, the elements that elevate the film over the umpteen other Asian remakes are the aspects most likely to cause a portion of the target audience to decry the movie.

This is the directorial debut of the British-born Guard Brothers, Charles and Thomas. They show promise when it comes to setting up scenes and building atmosphere. One sequence in particular, with Anna in bed and something creeping toward her in the darkness, is nail-biting in its intensity. And they play up the bleakness and beauty of the New England coast for all its worth. The Uninvited uses the setting without overselling it. For the four leads, the directors selected unconventional but effective actors. Emily Browning (who played Violet in the Lemony Snicket movie) has a wonderfully expressive face. Arielle Kebbel possesses charisma and energy. Elizabeth Banks shows a darker, less endearing side than we're accustomed to from her. And, while the always reliable David Strathairn is underused, he provides a calm influence hiding, perhaps, the touch of a sinister secret.

The Uninvited is a flawed production, but gratifying in the way it delivers. The interesting and unique elements of the movie effectively compensate for the formulaic way in which the plot develops. The film looks better in hindsight than it does while it's unfolding, although one could argue that there's a whiff of contrivance about its hook. Some people won't buy what The Guard Brothers are selling. Others will feel cheated. Others (like me) will smile in recognition of what they accomplish and the skill with which the deception is delivered. In the subgenre of PG-13 Asian horror remakes, this stands near the pinnacle.

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