A space-filling genre programmer through and through, The Uninvited is one of those movies that plugs along in such avowedly unfussy, obvious fashion as to lull its audience into a shrugging sense of giggly complacency; it spends a lot of time and effort convincing folks that it’s nothing more than an exercise in stylistic manipulation. Then — aha! — comes that One Big Twist, and everything is turned upside down, leaving the audience reeling in appreciation. Right… err, right? Well, not really. No matter how wildly they reframe the narrative, story twists applied lazily just come across as weird and/or yawn-inducing, and unfortunately that’s the case here. The Uninvited isn’t quite clever enough to earn any admiration for its switcheroo finale.
The film opens with Maine teenager Anna (Emily Browning, above left) describing a terrible nightmare to her therapist. In centers around her cancer-stricken mother, who died eight months ago in a fire — an event Anna witnessed, which then led her to try to kill herself. After the therapist gives her some sunny, idiotic advice (“Go home, kiss a boy, get into trouble, finish what you started!”), Anna bounces out of the psychiatric institution where she’s been held with nary a hint of any dark clouds swirling around her, save some scars on her wrists.
Her novelist father Steven (David Strathairn) picks her up, and Anna returns home to her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel, above right) and Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), the live-in nurse who’s moved in on the girls’ dad. Anna gets a visit from her mother’s ghost, and when the girls find out about their father’s recent marriage proposal to Rachel, they become convinced that the mysterious interloper did their mother in — a notion Rachel’s penchant for control and breathy, menacing whispers does little to dissuade. Some Nancy Drew-style investigation ensues, and things get spookier when Anna learns of an unsolved homicide case from 10 years earlier involving an in-home caregiver named Mildred Kemp.
Based on a 2003 Korean horror film from director Kim Jee-Woon, and adapted by Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, The Uninvited plays for most of its running time, as mentioned, as a very straightforward, on-the-nose, domestic thriller — a downgrade, killer-stepmom lever-puller much in the vein, narratively speaking, of The Glass House or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Milking Anna’s instability for slight pokes to the small of the back, there are visions of her Kentucky-fried mom, as well as bleeding keyholes and the like. No stringy, wet-haired Asian girls, though.
As directed by British brothers Charles and Thomas Guard, the movie makes nice use of some effective camera angles when trading in this dream-state spookery that bedevils Anna. But when it comes time for The Uninvited to wow us, and pull the rug out from under an audience, it fails. In the plainest terms, this is evident in the several weak flashbacks that comprise the movie’s post-twist scenes; clever films show you what was there all along, but you failed to consider integral. The Uninvited just lays its revelation on the table, but does nothing to earn it, or make it stick. Indeed, leaving the theater you might be reflecting back on any number of scenes, and thinking how they don’t quite fully make sense in light of the twist.
Browning has pouty, young Angelina Jolie-type lips, and is kind of a cool choice around which to center the movie, in that she isn’t conventionally va-voomish, or made out to look as such. Banks, though, is required to act significantly different depending on what a given scene calls for from her character, and in the end the script still hinges to an awkward degree on adults being required to do dumb things, in order to make Anna and Alex the center of the story, or force certain circumstances upon them. It’s a slight, to-scale success, I guess, in the sense that The Uninvited is able
to somewhat lull inattentive younger audiences into thinking they’re
watching a different kind of movie than what’s actually unfolding. The
narrative execution of its conceit, though, is fairly uninviting. (Paramount/DreamWorks, PG-13, 87 minutes)