Imagine, if you will, an ominously moonlit kitchen, filled with jumbled wooden furniture and half-eaten food gathering flies on discarded acrylic dinner plates. Sitting amongst these abandoned dishes and used silverware sits a raven, head curiously tilted, with its soulless gaze fixated on a closed door at the end of a long hallway. Moving past the raven, who barely acknowledges your presence, you make your way slowly towards the lone door. However, just as you are reaching out apprehensively towards the shiny black antique knob, a thick, oozing stream of glistening blood gushes from the keyhole. Then, just as you are recoiling in revulsion from this sinister spectacle, a pale, creepy child with corpse-like eyes elicits a piercing shriek and bolts towards you from the darkness.
This should feel like a scenario straight out of the most spine-chilling of nightmares, a portentous vision of a grim fate to come. So then, why does it feel so much like déjà vu? Perhaps the answer lies in the sheer number of pointlessly derivative horror films such as The Uninvited clogging up the collective arteries of fright-seeking filmgoers across the free world.
Adapted from the South Korean smash-hit A Tale of Two Sisters, The Uninvited (a generic title if ever there was one) stars the fresh-faced young actress Emily Browning, likely known best as the eldest child in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, as Anna, a young girl with a routinely tragic past. After her terminally ill mother perished in a burning guesthouse, under shady circumstances, poor despairing Anna became mentally unhinged and suicidal, causing her to be locked away in a loony bin for ten long months.
Returning home to her family's isolated sea-side home for the first time since that fateful occurrence, Anna quickly finds herself at odds with both her stern author father (David Strathairn) and his significantly younger new lady-friend Rachael (the ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks – who, despite a memorable scene involving a roast, goes a little too broad here). As well, she begins to experience disturbing nocturnal visions of ghostly cadavers, including her own char-broiled mother, who hint that Anna's new step-mom-to-be may not be who she says she is. Joining forces with her rebellious older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), our young heroine is tasked with solving the perplexing riddles behind the nature of her menacing apparitions and...
...I have to stop there. What little interest and surprise that the film holds is entirely dependent on you knowing as little as possible before dropping your dollars at the ticket booth. Nonetheless, I will warn you that learning The Uninvited's dirty little secret, which is sort of a cheat, comes at the often exasperating cost of being incessantly clobbered upside the head by a blatant red herring for about, oh, ninety-five percent of the flick's run-time.
Due to the endlessly tireless (and tiresome) efforts at misdirection in the screenplay by Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard, it's easy to overlook the brightest spot within the film, which is the lead performance by Emily Browning. With her pale visage, wide-eyes and child-like features, she comes across as being Christina Ricci's wounded and vulnerable little sister. The few effective moments within The Uninvited, such as an eerie night-time encounter with a creature under the bed or a tense encounter with a string of pearls, work solely due to Browning's ability to project real internal struggle. This kid has serious talent, and I look forward to witnessing great performances, in better movies, from her in the future.
British directing duo the Guard Brothers (Charles and Thomas, respectively) manfully attempt to differentiate The Uninvited from the rest of its ilk by embracing the film's sunny Bowen Island shooting location. Their exterior shots are often beautiful, and a refreshing alternative to the more traditional murky gloominess which overtakes the film's latter half. However, perhaps concerned with appearing too unique, they self-consciously crib the lion's share of their scare tactics from a smorgasbord of other Asian-influenced scary movies. I may have said it in my review of The Unborn, but I'll say it again: the effectiveness in using spooky youngsters as fright props died with the miserable final convulsions of The Ring and The Grudge series.
While The Uninvited is far from the worst fright-flick currently infecting theatres – that would be The Unborn - it's a sad testament to the current flagging state of modern mainstream horror, where the most minimal of quality is viewed by fans as a success. It's time for prospective filmmakers to embrace the art of the genre and start finding innovative and inventive ways to parlay our elemental human terrors into something that'll really leave us sleeping with one eye open. Because, as proved by The Uninvited, the notion of Hollywood trying something new at this point is far scarier than anything currently on-screen.
2 out of 5
*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Feb. 9th, 2009.