Tuesday, May 04, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Uninvited (2009)

The Uninvited (2009) is one of those horror movies that Hollywood seems to specialize in a lot lately.

You know the type I'm talking about: everything about the production looks so damned good that you're almost distracted from the fact that the plot doesn't make a lick of sense. You're almost oblivious to the fact that all the ingredients in the film are derivative and overly-familiar.

Almost.

Directed by the Guard Brothers, The Uninvited is a remake of a 2003 Korean film called A Tale of Two Sisters. I have not seen that film, so I'm not in a position to make comparisons between productions.

However, I can note that The Uninvited certainly boasts the familiar flavor of Asian horror as we've come to understand the form during the last decade, or at least since the remake of The Ring (2002). What that boils down to here is the presence of a long-haired, crouching ghost that skulks across the floor, head down, body contorted. And naturally, the ghost is angry about some transgression in the past.

The Uninvited's narrative revolves around a teenage girl named Anna, a character played with entrancing innocence by young Emily Browning. Anna has been living in a mental asylum for nearly a year now following the accidental death of her sick mother. As the film commences, Anna is released from custody and brought home by her Dad (David Straithairn), a successful author.

But Anna is not happy to learn that good old Dad is already shacking up with the lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), Mom's home-care nurse. Anna is also disturbed by the fact that she still has memory gaps surrounding the night Mom died and the boathouse exploded.

Once at home, Anna experiences ghostly visions of her Mom; visions that suggest the sick woman was actually murdered by Rachel. Anna informs her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) about this vision and her suspicions, and together they begin to investigate Rachel's history. They quickly learn that Rachel is living under an alias.

Then Anna's would-be-boyfriend, Matt confides in Anna that he "saw what happened" the night of her Mother's accident. But before Matt can explain further, he inconveniently dies under mysterious and tragic circumstances...

To reveal any further detail about the plot would no doubt ruin the film's many surprises. But suffice it to say that The Uninvited features a third-act twist that the experienced horror fan will see coming from a mile away.

Actually, that's not quite precise. The intrepid viewer need not know horror well. He or she just needs to understand in general how movies are structured. If you think about that, it's easy to correctly guess which character is really behind Mom's "accident."

A little hint: a horror movie like this is never, strictly-speaking, totally straight-forward (not even if it runs under 90 minutes). If a horror movie starts out by pointing the finger at one particular character, that character is, inevitably, not going to be the guilty party. He or she is a red herring. But you knew that already.

Unfortunately, The Uninvited doesn't quite plays fair with its last act revelation. I like and admire Elizabeth Banks a great deal, but she's really and truly lost here. Frankly, I don't see how some of Rachel's behavior and actions (particularly involving a hypodermic needle) can be interpreted in two ways, as the screenplay ultimately demands.

Furthermore, if we are to believe The Uninvited, ghosts apparently displace water when they go swimming...

There's also the not inconsiderable matter of the film's closing lines. Someone says something along the lines of "I'm finishing what I started." This declaration is supposed to be ominous and a bit ironic.

Yet, a careful watching of the film -- and particularly the revelatory flashback -- calls the remark's accuracy into question. Strictly speaking, this character didn't really start "the thing" she's referring to. And, oppositely, "the thing" the character did start, is actually left unfinished at the end of the movie, especially considering the sole survivor left alive and free. And yes, I realize this paragraph probably reads as maddeningly vague. Sorry.

The funny thing about The Uninvited is that no expense has been spared on the production. Anna's house (in Maine) must be a million dollar house, conservatively-speaking. The location, the structure, the interior everything -- it's all absolutely gorgeous. The ghost effects are handled well too and there's even one honest-to-goodness, jump-out-of-your seat jolt moment involving a kitchen stove. The actors all do their best, and occasionally rise above the material.

So it's easy to sit back, look at all these admirable surface qualities and then be lulled into believing that you're seeing a good horror movie.

In fact, you're seeing warmed-up leftovers from approximately a dozen recent and not-so-recent films. Though audacious, the story resolution here just doesn't make any sense. It depends on a weird coincidence involving jewelry. It depends on a convenient memory gap. It depends on the whole movie being interpreted as a "point of view" when the film itself doesn't embody or express a particular point of view.

The Uninvited's last moment is a total deal killer. It reveals that an important character knew all along -- from the first scene -- that the very conspiracy she was investigating was a fiction. In other words, even if the only way to "read" The Uninvited is as the crazy delusion of an insane mind, the movie is still inconsistent with itself.

6 comments:

  1. I often find myself wondering whether or not I've seen this movie or The Unborn or another "one of those horror movies," which definitely speaks to how little of an impression this movie made on me. If only this had been a remake of the 1945 The Uninvited, then I think I might have enjoyed it more (although considering The Haunting remake from 1999, perhaps not). I think ghost or haunting movies really have the potential to be very scary, but it seems rare that we get one that is straightforward and doesn't rely on a gimmick or out-of-place special effects. I think something that is more grounded and can make you a little nervous in your real life, like the ghost episodes of Unsolved Mysteries or A Haunting in Connecticut (the TV one), would be preferable to me over Asian ghost horror remakes or Paranormal Activity. Perhaps that's why my favorite ghost movies are ones like The Haunting (1963), The Innocents (1960), and The Uninvited (1945) where they don't go too overboard and the events feel more "real."

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  2. I look at this film as the equivalent of a forgettable page-turner that you read on the bus/train to work. Enjoyable enough while you're experiencing it but gone from your memory soon after its over.

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  3. It's funny, I watched this too, and not long ago, and I still have trouble remembering some of the things you allude to, like the coincidence involving jewelry and the "deal killer" at the end. It did feel like a collection of second-hand jolts and surprises from other movies, and except for the central twist (borrowed from a 1972 movie that creeped me out as a kid) hasn't stuck with me at all.

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  4. I loathe poorly plotted films--especially those with the now too familiar, twist ending. I wonder if it's really a twist if it's marketed as one, and we all expect it to show up? The fact that this is another pale U.S. remake of an overseas (and likely better) original horror film would make me want to skip it just on general principles.

    I'm with slasherfan on the older ghost films--and I do hope someone finally releases the great Ray Milland & Ruth Hussey classic, The Uninvited, to disc (along with re-issuing the truly spooky The Woman in Black). At least, The Haunting and The Innocents are out in DVD for fans of the genre. Fine review, John. Thanks for the heads up.

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  5. Hey everybody, thanks for the comments!

    slasherfan: You named some great movies there (the original The Haunting, The Innocents and the Milland film The Uninvited) and they're all so carefully crafted and thoughtful. The antithesis of this 2009 film, really. I think part of the problem with supernatural films made today (in general) is that filmmakers demand that ghosts have clear motives (revenge, usually) that everyone in the audience can clearly understand. At least subconsciously, I think we all believe, however, that if there are such ghostly entities, they aren't going to conform to our human sense of motivation. So the movie's don't seem real. They seem like...b.s.

    J.D.: You nailed it. It's not that watching The Uninvited is unpleasant. While it's going on, it holds the attention. The problem comes in if you bring any sense of active engagement to it. It just disappoints you; it's not up to snuff. Your metaphor is just right.

    Steve: SPOILER HERE!!!!

    Okay! The specific thing about the jewelry (the necklace of pearls) is that Rachel keeps showing it off, and even lets Anna try it on. But...the last scene in the film shows that the pearls, which are evidence of Mildred Kemp's crime, never actually left her care. So there are two sets of pearl necklaces, I guess, hanging around in the film. Conveniently. One in the asylum. One in Rachel's jewelry box. Either that, or Rachel didn't have a pair at all, Anna is just totally nuts and imagining everything, and the bloomin' movie is cheating.

    Le0pard13: Ha! You are exactly right. Does it even qualify as a twist if we are conditioned now to expect it? I guess a real twist in a movie like this would be a straight-forward narrative that unfolds without last act gymnastics! Also, I'm with you and slasherfan on affection for those classic films.

    Best to all! You guys are the best!
    JKM

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  6. John, I haven't seen this, but the original was terrific. I'm the guy who guessed the twist in "A Perfect Getaway" when I saw the first commercial for it, and I didn't see the twist coming in "A Tale of Two Sisters".

    I'd recommend you watch the original, but I suppose it's possible that it would have much less of an effect on you now that you know the basic structure of the film.

    I will say this though. I have to believe that if nothing else, the tone of the 2 films is different, as I did not come away from the original with a feeling of being scared or thrilled, but rather I came away feeling pretty sad. That might have something to do with the fact that I have 2 adorable daughters though, and some of it may have struck home for me.

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