February 5, 2009

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The Uninvited (PG-13)
A girl recovering from witnessing the death of her mother becomes convinced that something spooooky is happening in The Uninvited, yet another in the string of early-year chuckle-inducing horror movies.

Looking ahead in the horror/slasher/spooky-stuff genre, we have the remake of Friday the 13th (Feb. 13) and The Last House on the Left (March 13). And in theaters now are The Unborn, My Bloody Valentine 3D and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. At least we know the corpse-make-up and stylized-lighting sectors of the economy are still going strong.

Anna (Emily Browning) is at what is usually called in the movies “a facility” when we first meet her. She’s talking about the scary, scary dream she keeps having, one that mirrors the events on the night her mother died in a fire and throws in a couple of creepy-looking dead people and haunted house props. Don’t worry about sussing out the exact meaning of your dreams, her shrink tells her, just go home and live your life. Yippy!, says Anna, who bounds out of his office and soon into the car of her father, Steven (David Strathairn). He’s happy she’s home but he’s also a bit on edge — is his crazy daughter better? Will she get along with his live-in girlfriend, Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), who used to be her mother’s nurse? I don’t think there’s really anything to worry about there. There was really no way Anna was going to get along with the social-climbing Rachael.

Anna’s older sister, Alex (Arielle Kebbel), doesn’t get along with Rachael either. Alex is sick of them having loud expressions-of-their-affection in the bedroom near hers. And when Anna starts to see tje spooky things that fill her Night Mom Died dream during her waking hours, Alex is in agreement when Anna finds connections between the spooky dead children and a past that may implicate Rachael in more than just adultery and gold-digging.

Ah, if only these movies could be funnier. I mean, sure, it’s kind of funny when Banks’ character is required to walk the line between friendly and creepy and all her lines — even, like, “time for dinner” — come off as vaguely sinister. And Kebbel is entertaining in her bid to be the very-poor-man’s Jessica Alba. Browning seems to be in the midst of some kind of how-long-can-you-keep-the-same-frown-on-your-face dare, and doing admirably. And David Strathairn, well, he seems surprised and a bit confused just to be here. The movie takes place at an absolutely beautiful vacation home in Maine (the windows, the kitchen, the boat house — the real estate porn abounds). Maybe he was staying there for the month and the crew just showed up — he seems like the kind of guy who might end up in a movie just because he didn’t want to be rude.

These elements, the I’ll-bet-you-can-guess-it twist ending, the soap opera-level dialogue — there is so much here that could be funny. But the movie isn’t the kind of laugh-out-loud ridiculous you have to be, to be worth the ticket price, when you’re a horror movie that isn’t scary. In fact, movies like The Uninvited seem to be part of a growing genre of horror movies — movies that have the look, the soundtrack, the spooky dead people associated with horror and suspense but none of the actual spine-tingling fright. What these movies, The Unscary let’s call them, haven’t figured out how to do yet is to find something at least mildly interesting to put where the spooky should be. D+

Rated PG-13 for violent and disturbing images, thematic material, sexual content, language and teen drinking. Directed by The Guard Brothers (Charles and Thomas Guard) and written by Craig Rosenberg, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (from the screenplay for Changhwa, Hongryon by Jee-Woon Kim) The Uninvited is an hour and 27 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures.