***½/**** Image C+ Sound B+ Extras C
starring Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn
screenplay by Craig Rosenberg and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, based on the motion picture Janghwa, Hongryeon written by Ji-woon Kim
directed by The Guard Brothers
by Ian Pugh The title The Uninvited doesn't refer to the diabolical nanny/usurper driving the plot or to the undead spirits that torture our heroine, but rather to the damning intrusiveness of memory: inadequate, incomplete, and weighting down its victims with the guilt of bad decisions and lives ill-spent. It begins with a dream, as unassuming teenager Anna (Emily Browning) expresses her concern that she can't remember the night her bedridden mother died in a freak explosion. "Maybe it's not such a bad thing to forget," a well-meaning psychologist tells her, and from this innocent bit of wisdom springs all the misery and death that follows. Not exactly a tale of two sisters, the picture demonstrates how the black holes of misanthropy and insanity come not from our harrowing experiences, but from the fact that we try so hard to bottle them up.
Having slashed her wrists as a result of the accident in question, Anna discovers upon returning home from a ten-month stay in the psych ward that Dad (David Strathairn) is shacking up with Mom's hospice nurse, Rachael (Elizabeth Banks, at least playing her one note well enough to get the point across), who tries just a little too hard to ingratiate herself with her new family. Soon after fully establishing her distrust of this interloper, Anna is revisited by the visions that haunted her throughout her recovery--context-free images from that fateful night and decaying children telling her that she will be next--until finally she receives a dire warning from her mother accusing Rachael of murder. With the help of older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), Anna sets out to unearth Rachael's closely-guarded past...as well as the reason for her eagerness to assume the role left vacant by Anna's mother. If it sounds like this is going to be the umpteenth iteration of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle tropes, or perhaps a rehash of What Lies Beneath, well, that's precisely what they want you to think.
More a companion piece to Kim Ji-woon's Janghwa, Hongryeon than a direct remake, The Uninvited coalesces with that film to form a multifaceted exploration/recreation of the many layers of Psycho. Where Kim delivered a saddening fairytale about fractured identities and the transference of guilt, The Uninvited's co-helmers the Guard Brothers have taken things a few steps farther: herein, the desire to maintain blissful ignorance is paramount; anything that could interfere with the semblance of an idyllic life is obliterated, with the least amount of strife or tension provoking a response of denial and, ultimately, violence. (Also find shades of Hitchcock acolyte Dario Argento in a concentration on forbidden knowledge, deadly necklaces, and ramshackle investigations set into motion by half-remembered details of a tragedy.) Consequently, memory is conceived as a rebel against the mentality that would see trauma and stigma dismissed out of hand. They may seem unforgivably hokey at first, but every one of the picture's feverish dream sequences follows through on this, and given time to percolate, they become icily disturbing. "Hold me," Anna's boyfriend Matt (Jake Moss) whimpers as his spine splits in half--sources of pleasure, twisted into something fearful and unrecognizable. It's not cynical, per se, just a stinging condemnation of uncritical idealism, which in The Uninvited leads people to spitefully destroy everything they have.
The Uninvited flirts with brilliance because it has such a firm grasp on what it's doing and, furthermore, what you expect from it. Rachael is the type of character specifically written to elicit cries of "bitch" and "whore" from an audience fully convinced they're smarter and better-adjusted than anyone on screen. Certainly this is the expected reaction when she confesses to having coped with her day job by reminding herself that her clientele was always close to death. How to react, though, when she laments her inability to conceive children, to carve out a family of her own? Whether she actually manages to garner our sympathy by film's end is a sticky issue, but the question itself forces some introspection on the rage and sadness that crop up while reminiscing about broken dreams. It's easy to pawn off Rachael as a villain because she's the golem into which we can pour everything we don't like about humanity--the mystery, the frailty, the duplicity--and subtly exclude ourselves from that examination. (One scene has the sisters rifling through her underwear drawer, revealing several embarrassing--yet not shocking--secrets.) When all is said and done and everything's out in the open, she becomes a bitter reminder that you never know enough about someone to piece together the whole story.
But again, it's more comfortable to fall back on what we know, and if nothing else, The Uninvited succeeds spectacularly in making "what we know" subject to infinite doubt and suspicion. If the formal twist ending feels a little too obvious and recycled (the kind of Bruce Willis-is-dead/Ed Norton-is-schizo treacle that would be naturally diffused by any number of conversations before the big reveal), all is forgiven by a pair of loony-bin bookends, not to mention by the moment when you realize just how much this movie has to say about the denial of traumatic memories. The final shot is the stuff of nightmares, albeit not in the conventional sense--it delivers nothing but the implication that madness begins once the mind rejects its own inherent darkness. From there, something far more sinister rushes in to fill the void. Originally published: January 30, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Through Paramount, DreamWorks brings The Uninvited to Blu-ray in a disappointing 1.78:1, 1080p transfer--"disappointing" not the least because 1.78:1 isn't the film's original aspect ratio. Shot in Super35, The Uninvited has been "opened up" for home viewing and seems to sacrifice a certain cinematic legitimacy in the process, with compositions becoming generic, Lifetime-esque. But the situation is more dire than that: from the washed-out blacks to the bland colours to the soft detail, this is such weak tea that it scarcely suggests HiDef; it's a thoroughly unexceptional image apart from a few beautifully-rendered sun-dappled tableaux. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio lacks lustre as well--even the jump-scares are curiously sedate, though I suspect the mix was dull to start with as opposed to compromised on its journey to the small screen. Still, I wish its base volume were a little louder.
Now for the really infuriating part: there are four deleted scenes on the disc (five counting the alternate ending), and each of them is presented in 1080p at 2.35:1. Worse, despite the intrusion of video noise, they look significantly better than the main feature--crisper, more colourful, and more contrast-y. As for the content of these elisions, they're indeed pretty, erm, 'elidible,' but there's a bit where Anna goes searching for Alex the moment she returns home from the hospital that might have added some much-needed texture to Alex's rather abrupt entrance into the narrative proper. The alternate ending, meanwhile, generally proves the wisdom of going out on the note the picture ultimately did. Also on board is an EPK-style making-of, "Unlocking The Uninvited" (19 mins., HD), in which the filmmakers touch on the challenges inherent in retooling (read: straightening out) A Tale of Two Sisters for Western audiences. Producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald also reveal that the role of Alex was tailored for their Lemony Snicket ingenue Emily Browning, who wound up playing Anna instead. In short, it's OK for a puff piece, but so rich in spoilers I wouldn't recommend it as a pre-show appetizer. Originally published: April 27, 2009.