Teenage sisters Anna and Alex Rydell return home from a mental hospital but their recovery unravels because of a cruel stepmother, clueless father and a lingering ghost.
Emily Browning, the young Melbourne actress best known for playing one of the eternally pursued Baudelaire children in 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, has a luminous face that is tender and horizontal in the face of her brittle, vertical Hollywood contemporaries. Her lips are full, colour flows to her evocative cheeks and her limpid eyes suggest unknown qualities; Browning looks like she should be sitting for Rembrandt or Vermeer.
The smartest thing that neophyte English directors Charles and Thomas Guard do in The Uninvited, a more perceptive than usual teenage themed horror movie, is tell their story through close-ups of the 20-year-old’s face. The camera holds her in the tightest of frames and Browning in turn holds the audience. In a film where the aim is to deliver a potent fright, there’s an arresting quality to the numerous shots that convey emotional information via her reaction shots. What should be a minor insert, a shot lasting a mere second or two, repeatedly establishes a cumulative power as the camera stays with Browning.
The Uninvited is a remake of the 2003 South Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters. The original, written and directed by Kim Ji-woon, is an elliptical, increasingly tormented study of a family falling apart. It is a moody, impenetrable take on the horror film – you come to fear that reality itself has been lost. Per the steady procession of American remakes of fright-laden Asian horror hits, The Uninvited straightens out the narrative and primes the audience for each fright while holding back plot’s final twist. The psychological collapse is quite orderly.
Browning plays Anna Rydell, a teenager who has spent almost a year in a psychiatric institution since the accidental death of her ill mother. Brought home by her father Steven (David Strathairn), a successful author, she finds an upended family structure redolent of Hamlet. Her mother’s nurse, Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), has consummated an affair with her father, and is the new matriarch. Anna’s sister, Alex (Arielle Kebbel), glowers on the domestic periphery, convinced Rachael was behind the death of their mother and fearful of what she might do next.
As with last year’s Shutter, a remake of a 2004 Thai horror flick, The Uninvited uses the loud screams and nubile female bodies the genre expects, to mask an astute feminist commentary. If Shutter was about the risks a woman takes in letting a man into her life, The Uninvited is focused on how women deal with each other at close confines. Alex and Anna, who is haunted by invocations of her late mother, believe that Rachael is a threat, but that may be because of ulterior motives or simply because she has fallen in love with their father.
Much of the picture plays out as expected, from the otherworldly apparitions to the flashes of violence, but it’s done skillfully and moves swiftly. Ultimately it’s Browning’s film and in her first role since attaining adulthood she does enough to suggest that she may one day be the equal of another Australian actress with a tellingly expressive face: Naomi Watts.