I’ll start with an old war story from my earliest days of writing these things. This story is, above all, a confession of a lack of nerve. In my first few months of film writing, as I was just getting my feet under me, I watched a romantic comedy that I thought was far above the typical fare. I thought long and hard about giving it a four-star review. However, deep down, I accepted the “just a rom-com,” theory. I couldn’t conceive of giving it a grade above a certain level. So, while still recommending it, I talked myself into a lower grade.
I regret that decision to this day. The film, the Ashton Kutcher-Amanda Peet effort A Lot Like Love, remains the best generic romantic comedy that I have seen as a film critic. And I can still tell you why. It had a semi-real director, and therefore a few moments of visual touch. It drained Kutcher of his Kutcher-ness and found something likably Midwestern in his mien. Most of all, it gave a crap about its characters. As a result you rooted for them. You’d be surprised how far a little caring goes.
So lesson learned. And today applied. As weird as this is to say, The Uninvited is the best generic horror flick that I’ve seen as a critic. I suspect it will be several laps around the sun before I like one more. I wouldn’t say it is original. It is a remake of a Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, after all. I would say, though, that it’s perfectly effective. It zigged and I zagged. Its ending, while not perfectly original, swiped me with a shock left.
The genius of this gothic horror story (and, yes, that word is too strong, but eh, there it is.) is that the story is not a horror film at all. But the main character, a bubbly, baby-faced wrist-slitter named Anna, convinces us that she’s stuck in one. Yes, there are supernatural freak-outs. Ghosts and ghouls. Apparitions and hallucinations. This film knows many horror-show tropes. Yet it manages to resist. I might go so far as to call the whole horror thing a maguffin. A throwaway. A marketing masquerade for a stranger story.
Fueled not by gore but by female pacts and jealousies, the debut feature of directors Thomas and Charles Guard is underlined by Freudian touches and a vague eroticism. The film’s strength lays in the bond between Anna and her rebellious wiseass sister, Alex ( a solid Emily Browning and a standout Arielle Kebbel, respectively). Kindred and vibrant spirits, they isolate themselves in a beehive of paranoia upon Anna’s returns from a mental hospital. She still cannot remember details about the death of their incapacitated mother, lost in a mysterious boathouse explosion at their oceanside Maine estate.
Their suspicions of murder fall on Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), their mother’s nurse and father’s mistress, who is now the lady of the house. Her tastes run to tranquilizers, other people’s money, and long, sharp knives. Just ask the roast.
I find horror films refreshing from time to time. It’s deliciously simple filmmaking. The cinematic language is so direct. Creeking doors. Ringing bells. Sensitivity to light and shade. Even if these things melted into cliché long ago, the style remains extraordinarily aware to the quiet beauty and terror of nature. That applies to the lushly lit cinematography, intoxicated by the seaside landscape. The film needs a credit for God for creating British Columbia.
Some critics will grouse about the horror clichés – a bloody ghost, dead child spirits, and the like. Mostly, these feel like they came attached to a wad of money – fodder for the necessary commercials. Yet those paying attention will notice something different. Rather than easily reveal secrets, as ghosts would do in most horror films, they confuse. They obfuscate. They send these Hardy Girls on goose chases. The film uses cliché to attack cliché. In essence, they subvert the form, creating a post-modern film with a very casual stroke.
While not comparing The Uninvited in quality, it spiritually derives from an impressive roster of films – such as Rebecca and Diabolique. It’s not about making spines tingle. It’s about being wound in a web, slowly and deeply and completely.
There is a moment as we approach the climax when Anna escapes her wicked stepmother and takes her evidence to the local sheriff. He nods in understanding. Then he leaves her in the office. And she wakes up while being attacked. At least, that’s how Anna sees it. And that’s how we see it, too. This is the mark of the film’s accomplishment, our slow, silent, complete cocooning inside this character’s perspective. Arthouse directors sometimes will go for being so completely wrapped into a character’s perspective . And yet here it is in a Hollywood horror movie. The film is much more than it will appear to some eyes.