Blu-ray Review: The Uninvited (2009)

Inviting You for a Good Scare
On DVD & Blu-ray

Watch Korea's Original
A Tale of Two Sisters

Employing a classical sensibility to their feature filmmaking debut that relied nicely on in-camera edits and a bare minimum of digital effects to match their psychologically Freudian influenced remake of the recent Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters-- British brothers and successful commercial directors Charles and Thomas Guard (a.k.a. The Guard Brothers)-- crafted a uniquely effective and underrated genre film. And in doing so, it's every bit the "art" movie they aspired to make in honoring the original.

Drawn to the ambiguity of Asian horror films--The Guard Brothers found an ideal creative partnership in DreamWorks producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes who had brought to American interpretation of Gore Verbinski's The Ring starring Naomi Watts to life a few years earlier.

As the original Tale of Two Sisters took an exceptionally dark path with an even more ambiguous set-up than most of its contemporaries in the increasingly popular cult following of Asian psychological driven horror works that become ripe fodder for Hollywood remakes, the screenwriters and filmmakers decided to retain some of the elements of mystery and unresolved questions from the original but ultimately provide much more closure.

The result is a genuinely startling work that throws viewers for an ultimate loop in a stunning gasp of a twist ending that never once seems like a gimmick but instead a well-earned sleight of hand trick that still holds up when you instantly replay the events that led up to it in your mind once more.

While Freud and psychological horror such as The Omen, The Haunting, Rosemary's Baby, Carrie, The Exorcist, What Lies Beneath, Shadow of a Doubt, The Shining, The Others, The Sixth Sense, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle are all referenced either directly in the production notes as influences or in cinematic homage throughout the feature-- the film's standard framework hits viewers on an immediate gut level with a set-up not unlike most fairy tales or Walt Disney features we were reared on as children with the classic problem of a potentially wicked and possibly even deadly evil stepmother.

Beginning inauspiciously in a frankly eye-rolling teen cliche of a group of kids on a beach presumably at their version of make-out point-- just when you think it's going to turn into a "don't go in the water" tale a la Jaws or Friday the 13th, soon supernatural elements come into play as we realize that our young heroine-- Emily Browning (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events)-- is recounting the events that led up to the horrific death of her mother in dream form to her psychiatrist.

Institutionalized following a suicide attempt-- after ten months of intensive therapy, Browning's Anna gets a chance to return home to the picturesque yet eerily solitary seaside home occupied by her literary author father (David Strathairn-- a natural in the self-involved, clumsy cerebral roles), her rebellious extroverted older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) and perky blonde Rachel (Elizabeth Banks). The former nurse to her bed-ridden mother-- Rachel, for whom we immediately feel little sympathy-- has wasted no time in taking on the role herself, romantically involved with Anna's decades older father with the intention of marriage in the future.

While at first her bitter sister's homecoming reception of Anna appears less than warm as the two girls argue over who had it worse in their time apart, soon they become united by their shared dislike and distrust of Banks' exhaustively proactive Rachel who tries overwhelmingly hard to excel at her new role as "homemaker."

Or, to pin it down more precisely, there's just something that feels a bit overly phony and manipulative about Rachel and when Anna has a frightening experience wherein the ghost of her mother points a Hamlet like finger in the direction of Banks as the reason she's lying six feet under the ground, Anna and Alex embark on a none-too-careful background check of their possible step mother which leads to shocking realizations as past secrets are unleashed.

In the end, the film-- which is guaranteed to take viewers completely by surprise-- is bolstered by believable performances in an admittedly under-written work that clocks in at just under ninety minutes as we're left to fill in the blanks rather quickly and make some big conclusions about the motives of characters throughout as for just one example Banks and Strathairn seldom share a scene with more than one or two lines of dialogue throughout.

Likewise it's strengthened by The Guard Brothers' keen sense of artistry that helps us forgive some of the supernatural/ghost sequences that are a bit less than successful as it works best when dealing fully in the reality of the situation and manipulating some of the camera-work to convey a particular idea.

And the movie, much like The Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath-- manages to use an intense sense of pacing and mysterious aura to great effect in lieu of gore, yet as some critics pointed out, despite this the PG-13 rating seems a bit weak although there's nothing quite so strong as to justify an "R" (again making us realize there should be another rating between the two).

With an immediate musical homage to the ominous child-like melody of Rosemary's Baby in a driving sequence that recalls The Shining as the film is set way out in the open in a deceptively airy and idyllic yet lonely and claustrophobic location-- it's easy to play "spot the influences" during The Uninvited.

Yet, part of the film's success lies in the fact that it presents us with the standard archetypes we know so well such as the less-than-attentive father, the trouble-making older daughter, the introverted one with a Freudian like obsession with her dad, the phony sweet on the outside but scary on the inside stepmother, etc. and then changes the playbook in the film's final act which is sure to make you want to view it one more time.

While it's safe to say you won't look at the versatile Elizabeth Banks in quite the same way again because she proves once and for all-- similar to her role as Laura Bush in W.-- that she's more than just the silly girl-next-door in Seth Rogen movies, the real discovery again is in the performance of young Emily Browning, last seen in Lemony Snicket who intelligently spaced out her work to complete her schooling.

With the face that made producers Parkes and MacDonald instantly realize that "this girl should be in a thriller," they add that the reasoning behind her look is because her "timeless quality" makes her someone you can't immediately place as "she's someone you would find in the 1900's but she is also very contemporary."

And when you put that angelic face with expressive eyes in an emotionally charged scene opposite a dead-on Elizabeth Banks channeling as she said the women whose dark turns inspired her like Rebecca DeMornay in Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct-- the results are extraordinary.

Furthermore, it makes The Guard Brothers' impressive debut The Uninvited not only one of the biggest sleepers so far of 2009 but also a film that will possibly garner a Donnie Darko like cult following once it catches on in DVD and Blu-ray.

While the visuals crystallized in the Blu-ray are first rate with Daniel Landin's wondrously haunting and luminous cinematography, the sound balance of the transfer was way off having you lunge for the remote at times to move the volume well past fifty just to be able to hear a single line of vital dialogue in this deceptively quiet film.

Boasting what DreamWorks describes as "a chilling alternate ending" that basically just goes one step further in presenting the exact same information as offered in the theatrical one (making the decision to leave it as is, the right one), the two other features included on the Blu in high definition include the obligatory deleted scenes and an interesting Electronic Press Kit featurette transfer "Unlocking the Uninvited" that you'll definitely want to avoid until after you've seen the film since it's riddled with spoilers.

Far better than most critics would lead you to believe-- while I can't judge the way it compares to Korea's source material, it shows amazing promise from its directors and the fact that it's a film produced by a close husband and wife, directed by siblings, and centering on a sibling relationship seems to have been perfectly served by a cast and crew who were already on exactly the same page.

For-- as we're quick to realize since we end up on the exact same page early on-- if for any reason one is slow to catch on, rest assured you can always get there in an instant watching any of Disney's wicked step-mother movies that put you in precisely the right frame of mind.