Friday, January 30, 2009

A horror remake that works

"The Uninvited" arrives on screen pulling a carload of familiar horror ingredients into view: an evil stepmother, an author father who's blinded to her conniving ways, and two sisters who want to uncover the truth about their stepmom. Add lots of creepy atmospherics, and it all sounds depressingly typical. Yet this apparently uninspired genre stew manages to rise above the pack -- at least as much as that's possible for a movie based on another movie, a 2003 helping of Korean horror.

Equipped with surprises, shocks and more psychological depth than the average chiller, "The Uninvited" also may become famous for introducing Emily Browning to a wider audience. Browning, who hails from Australia, plays Anna, a teen-ager who's released from a mental institution early in the movie. Disturbed teen-agers don't exactly make for groundbreaking roles, but Browning has been blessed with the kind of amorphous looks that seem to change from shot to shot. She can look much younger or significantly older than she did in the previous moment. She has the pouty mouth and puffy lips of a character out of Japanese anime, and when the movie's finished, you may look back and realize that she's done a more masterful acting job than you may have thought. (In the above photo, Browning can be seen on the left; she's depicted with Airelle Kebbel, the actress who plays her sister.)

Charles and Thomas Guard, the brothers who directed the movie, have designed some tension-filled sequences; they also know how to deliver shocks and have obtained serviceable performances from the supporting cast: David Strathairn as dad, an author who seems oblivious to his new wife' s cunning ways; Elizabeth Banks as the stepmother who may be up to no good, and Kebbel, as the savvy Alex, Anna's sister.

The movie doesn't take long to pose the question that occupies most of its 87 minutes: Did Anna and Alex lose their mother in an accident or was she done in by the stepmom, a nurse who took care of the her in her final days? Don't be too sure you know all the answers; the Guard brothers have done a good job of constructing their movie to create maximum kick at the end.

Almost all the action takes place at a sprawling, spectacularly isolated house on the Maine coast. Oh well, "The Uninvited" may not be quite as amazing as its setting, but it's better than you'd expect.

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