Normally I like to start the year’s selection of Halloween Haunters off with a known classic, to ensure that things start off on a high note. But with so many of my selections already dictated by the Haul of Dubious Quality, I opted instead to pick one at random and hope for the best. Surprisingly, it worked out rather well.
The feature-length directorial debut of Charles and Thomas Guard, The Uninvited is apparently a remake of a Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters. I haven’t seen the earlier film, but the American remake is certainly worth a look. It’s not what a person might expect from its initial premise.
Emily Browning stars as Anna, a teenage girl who has just been discharged from a mental institution. Her terminally ill mother had recently died in a fire, and Anna had attempted suicide soon after. She is discharged with, not exactly a clean bill of health, but an assertion from her psychologist that she won’t heal completely until she’s out in the world again. So it’s back home to her family, with her father (David Strathairn), sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), and her father’s new girlfriend, their mother’s former caretaker (Elizabeth Banks). But once she gets home, Anna starts to question her sanity again, as she starts seeing ghosts who appear to be warning her of an ominous presence.
With a former mental patient and visions of ghosts, there are a couple typical slasher-style threats that could be brought into play. The Uninvited chooses to use these as supporting elements, however, and is stronger for it. Instead of relying on jump scares (which are present, but in small quantity), it relies on a steady increase of psychological suspense and a mundane threat that is no less intimidating for not being supernatural. As Anna’s visions become more explicit, she and Alex and the audience become increasingly convinced that Rachel, their stepmother-to-be, was responsible for the fire that killed their mother.
Tender care and a crocodile smile.
The movie works primarily because of the skill of the actors. Emily Browning and Arielle Kebbel play off each other well as the two sisters; different in personality, but similar enough to be recognizable as siblings. And similarly able to switch between seriousness and young hijinks at need. David Strathairn is arguably slumming it in this film — which isn’t a knock on it, as Strathairn is arguably slumming it in a lot of films — and though his role as the father has surprisingly little screen time, he is one of the most natural performers in the film. But the film’s real strength is in Elizabeth Banks, who manages to hit that perfect note between cheerful friendliness and icy menace in scene after scene. A film with this plot requires the audience to believe that a character can be a murderer and believe that they could fool reasonable adults; Banks is completely believable.
It’s not a perfect film — there are some large questions that come to mind when one has had some time to think back on it — but it’s an entertaining one. As a suspenseful film with only a touch of the macabre to it, it’s a good way to start the Halloween season.