By Roger Moore
It’s not a slasher film.
An effective blend of thriller and horror — of “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” and “The Grudge” — “The Uninvited” is the best Hollywood adaptation of an Asian horror title since “The Ring.” Taut, nervy performances, lean, unobtrusive direction and a smattering of wit in the script make this the rare horror picture that rises above cheesy “gotchas” and gore.
“Wit in the script?” How about the opening line?
“I love you,” a boy whispers to his girlfriend, mid-make out on the beach, “and I have a condom.”
Well, if that doesn’t just sweep a girl off her feet!
But Anna (Emily Browning), our narrator, isn’t swept. That come-on, it turns out, is a memory that she brings up in a recurring dream, one she tells her shrink. She’s trying to piece together the night her mother died, an event that drove her to attempt suicide.
Anna is all better now, her doctor enthuses. “Go home,” he says, “and finish what you started.”
OK, the foreshadowing is Big-O “obvious.” We don’t know what Anna needs to finish. But we can figure it out pretty quickly on arriving at the coastal mansion she calls home. Dad (David Strathairn) is a writer who, 10 months after mom’s death, has taken up with mom’s nurse, Rachel. And Rachel, played with a dead-eyed intensity by Elizabeth Banks, seems to be a woman willing to do whatever it takes to get a piece of this rich life. Every look, every word out of her mouth, has a taste of menace about it.
“I hope it works out so you can stay,” she purrs.
But Anna has an ally — Alex, played by Arielle Kebbel (”The Grudge 2”) as if she knows she has the best role and all the funniest lines. She’s the hard-partying rebel sister.
“Welcome to your new asylum,” she cracks. “Better food, crazier people.”
Anna may be the craziest of all. Mom, who had been terminally ill, had this bell she tinkled to summon help. Anna keeps hearing it. Visions of mom, burnt (she died in a fire) and screaming, appear. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, she wants revenge. “MURDER” she screams, pointing a gnarled finger at the house Rachel has taken from her. Other visions appear. Is Anna dreaming? Is Rachel playing with her head to get her out of the picture and back into the mental hospital?
British siblings The Guard Brothers keep this adaptation of the Korean thriller “A Tale of Two Sisters” focused on Browning’s Anna, watching her face puzzle over the “clues,” putting her in peril, following as she tries to enlist help and talk sense to her dad. Browning makes a perfectly acceptable scream queen. The music is spare and the shocks have a distinctly J-horror/Asian horror feel about them.
It’s not gore, not a slasher film or torture porn in any sense. That crawling, disheveled “spirit” that we’ve seen in such films as “The Grudge” is the grabber — the one that grabs Anna by the leg or arm and grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck.
You can see the payoff coming and, like many movies of the genre, there’s a tendency to oversell the coda. We just saw what happened. You don’t need to explain it, retracing the film’s clues, shot by shot.
But that bit of dumbing down doesn’t make “The Uninvited” any less welcome.