Film Review: The Uninvited

A generic horror programmer somewhat enlivened by two strong lead performances and a surprising, if preposterous, plot twist.

Ask anyone who has seen the 2003 South Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters what they remember most about that movie and the answer will most likely be: wallpaper. Specifically the rose red—or, to be more accurate, blood-red—wallpaper that lined the inside of the unassuming house where the titular siblings waged a battle of wills against an apparently psychotic stepmother, all while being visited by creepy visions of ghosts hiding in wardrobes and under the kitchen sink. Initially welcoming, that deep-crimson color only grows more oppressive as the bloody tale unfolds within the claustrophobic confines of the girls' unhappy home, until you wonder whether you'll ever see blue sky or yellow sun again.

That same wallpaper is present in The Uninvited, Hollywood's long-in-the-works update of A Tale of Two Sisters, but missing from this largely by-the-numbers remake is a similar feeling of overwhelming dread that made the original such compelling viewing. This isn't anything new, of course. Asian horror films frequently emphasize mood over gore-infused scares and coherent storytelling, but that formula almost always gets reversed when they travel across the Pacific. In the case of The Uninvited, the movie's three credited screenwriters have worked overtime to graft A Tale of Two Sisters' often confounding plot onto a traditional horror narrative. In the process, they've stripped away most of the original's psychological subtleties in favor of cheap "Boo!" moments and flat domestic melodrama.

The basic premise remains the same in both versions. Institutionalized since attempting suicide in the wake of her mother's death, Anna (Emily Browning) is finally given a clean bill of mental health and allowed to return to her gorgeous lakeside home, inhabited by her novelist father Steven (David Strathairn), vaguely slutty older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), and Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), Mom's former nurse and Dad's new girlfriend. To say that Alex and Anna aren't happy about this arrangement is an understatement: They want the new girl out…yesterday. But Rachel has no intention of going anywhere and makes it clear that she's up to the challenge of defending her turf against daddy's little sweethearts. As if that's not enough emotional stress for a just-released mental patient, Anna is also plagued by images of a ghostly girl who seems to be warning her about a dark secret in Rachel's past, a secret Rachel will go to any length to protect. Thus the battle lines are drawn and the game, as they say, is on.

Unlike a lot of the interchangeable teen-friendly horror films dumped into theatres in January (The Unborn, anyone?), The Uninvited isn't a complete waste of time, thanks largely to the surprisingly thoughtful performances from Browning and Kebbel and, to a lesser extent, Banks, who has a lot of fun playing a foul-mouthed version of a Disney-esque wicked stepmother. Despite being handed characters that are, at best, two-dimensional, the young actresses establish a strong sisterly bond that touches on deeper emotions the film itself isn't prepared to support. Their relationship is so believable, it throws the audience off the scent of a third-act plot twist, which, when it arrives, delivers a genuine surprise. Unfortunately, it also comes dangerously close to invalidating everything we've seen up until that point. A Tale of Two Sisters, which employed a similar twist, sidestepped this problem by simply not sweating the details. Reality was already so malleable in that film, the final revelation didn't seem any more out-there than anything that had come before. In contrast, The Uninvited pulls a bait-and-switch that provides a pleasant shock at first, but ultimately feels like a cheat. And while there are plenty of things you can complain about in regards to Asian horror films, one thing they rarely do is cheat.