Kim Jee-woon’s genuinely creepy 2003 Korean psycho-thriller “Janghwa, Hongryeon,” translated as “A Tale of Two Sisters,” is the source of this Hollywood remake, and as usual the retread can’t hold a candle to the original.
In this version, Emily Browning plays Anna, a teenager so traumatized by the death of her ill mother in a terrible fire that after she’d attempted suicide, her workaholic father Steven (David Strathairn) committed her to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Now released and returned home, she has to deal with the fact that during her absence daddy has gotten engaged to Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), her mother’s former caregiver, who’s taken over the house. She seeks solace from her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), and they join forces to investigate Rachel’s past—an acute necessity after Anna begins having visions of her dead mother (Maya Massar) suggesting that her death was murder most foul. That sets up a savage, though understated, conflict between Anna and Rachel for control of the household.
There’s a hint of a gender-reversed “Stepfather” to “The Uninvited,” but Joseph Rubin’s 1987 picture was far superior, eschewing the supernatural sidetracks—and the obligatory (and unfortunately derivative—see Robert Mulligan’s 1972 adaptation of Thomas Tryon’s “The Other”) twist ending in favor of a leaner, more naturalistic approach to extreme family dysfunction. And it had the benefit of Terry O’Quinn’s extraordinary performance as the maniacal fellow looking for a perfect family. Banks tries very hard, but she comes in a distant second to him, offering mostly teeth-clenching smiles as signs of unhinged hostility. And Browning and Kebbel can’t sustain the suspense they’re intended to generate; the latter plays the slutty adolescent well enough (one hopes it’s not just type-casting), but the former is blank and bland in a role that—given the final reel—desperately requires more oomph. Worst used is Strathairn, a fine actor reduced to playing a stock dumb-as-dirt daddy, though poor Jesse Moss, as a supermarket clerk with a secret, comes in a close second. (Come to think of it, all the males fare badly: Kevin McNulty seems ill-at-ease as the local sheriff.)
The plot of the movie is based on an extreme form of indirection, but the picture isn’t directed skillfully enough by Tom and Charlie Guard, the latest fraternal team to come out of the commercial world to stake out a feature career. The biggest surprise, in fact, isn’t the huge reveal at the close, which many will find a simple cheat, but how lacking in atmosphere the result is. You can feel their desperation to create an unsettling mood, but they don’t evince the finesse needed to do so. And the pedestrian cinematography by Daniel Landin doesn’t fill the void. It’s no wonder that Christopher Young’s score works overtime in a futile effort to jazz things up.
The result is a prosaic thriller that needed a touch of visual poetry to make the grade. Kim’s original is far scarier; and come to think of it, so is Lewis Allen’s “The Uninvited” from 1944.
This new “Uninvited” is an invitation you can easily refuse.