Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Uninvited / * (PG-13)

Anna: Emily Browning
Alex: Arielle Kebbel
Rachael: Elizabeth Banks
Steven: David Strathairn

DreamWorks SKG presents a film directed by The Guard Brothers. Written by Craig Rosenberg and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard. Based on the screenplay “Janghwa, Hongryeon” by Ji-woon Kim. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG-13 (for violent and disturbing images, thematic material, sexual content, language and teen drinking).

“The Uninvited” is a dull, tarnished, and muddled example of how sometimes Hollywood just doesn’t get it. It’s one thing to make an original horror movie and think you need to drag an audience along with mugs and suspicious behavior, all flashing like some neon sign that announces “Now is the time to be scared”; but to take a shining example of the Asian horror phenomenon and misread everything that makes it work and replace those elements with unnecessary schlock is utterly inexcusable.

My vehemence toward this movie is possibly exaggerated by the fact that the Korean film that inspired it, “A Tale of Two Sisters”, is one of my favorite films to come out of the Asian ghost story market of movies that drove J-Horror to become one of the most popular genres to find new life in Hollywood remakes. Looking at “The Uninvited” is like taking a course on what not to do in telling a horror ghost story.

Just for the Guard Brothers, the directors of this mess of a movie, and their screenwriters, I’ve prepared this list of “don’ts” so they might avoid this sort of unfortunate outcome again.

1. Don’t give your horror movie a title that announces the movie as a “scary movie.” While this may be something the studio wants in order to sell the movie more easily to a mindless audience, this particular story actually works better if you have no idea it is a horror movie to begin with. I have no idea what the original Korean film’s title “Janghwa, Hongryeon” translates to in English, but that movie’s U.S. title “A Tale of Two Sisters” is a nearly perfect title. The story follows two sisters, and until about the midway point in the movie there are no strong indications it is an outright horror film, just hints that something isn’t quite right. Putting the girls’ relationship in the title is also effective because it plays such an important role in the plot.

2. Since that sibling relationship is so important to the story, don’t focus the set up and so much of the plot so single-mindedly on only one of the sisters. I will not spoil the importance of their relationship here, although the Guard Brother’s have done their best to do just that by making their relationship so peculiar. Anna (Emily Browning, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”) is clearly the protagonist of this story, which runs more than ten minutes before we even know she has a sister. Her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel, “The Grudge 2”) is so poorly drawn, she seems to have no reason for even existing in most of the scenes she’s in. While there is a reason for that, it shouldn’t be obvious that she could be removed from a scene at any point without any further mention of her whereabouts—a phenomenon that actually occurs in many of her scenes.

3. Don’t give the audience reason to question the heroine’s credibility before the story even begins. I’ve seen many movies end about ten minutes after they should’ve. This movie begins about ten minutes before it should. The movie opens with Anna talking about her dreams to a psychiatrist. Soon she is released from an institution to her father’s care. This knowledge that she has suffered a mental breakdown puts her perceptions in question from the start of the film. It would be much more effective had the filmmakers introduced the knowledge of her institutionalization after the audience had already begun to relate to her.

She’s returning home after the tragedy of losing her mother in a boathouse explosion, and she’s returning to find her mother is being replaced by her mother’s nursemaid. Isn’t the replacement of Anna’s mother a big enough point of tension between her and her father’s new squeeze? Wouldn’t that situation explain why they’re treating her with kid gloves? But then, after we’ve sided with her in the matter, it would be a shock to learn of her breakdown; changing everything we’ve seen up to that point.

4. If you must turn the nursemaid, Rachel, into a villain, don’t make her actions so reprehensible that we can’t understand just what Anna’s and Alex’s father sees in her. Elizabeth Banks (“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) is a talented actress, and I find it hard to believe she chose to mug and behave like such an obvious witch. David Strathairn (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”) as the father is the perfect reasonable man, so how could he not understand why his daughter is so resentful of this erratic woman. I can’t blame these accomplished actors, so the director’s must have been foolhardy enough to suggest this less than subtle inconsiderate behavior toward the sisters.

5. Don’t change the age of children in a horror remake from younger children to teenagers. There is nothing more frightening to an adult than subjecting small children to the horrors of adult behavior. But teenagers are just getting what they deserve with their “I’m a grown up too” attitudes.

This list of don’ts could go on for quite a while, but what it boils down to is the question, “Why did they remake this movie?” In some cases, movies are remade because technologies have improved and they can now be made better. In the case of an Asian horror flick that’s only a few year old to begin with, it’s usually because the filmmakers felt the original was good and there is a need to share its ideas and techniques with a new audience. If this was the case with “The Uninvited”, then how come so much of the original “A Tale of Two Sisters” has become lost in the Hollywood shuffle? Didn’t the filmmaker’s like what they had seen in the original? Didn’t they want to achieve much of the same response from their audience that they had gotten from their experience with it? Or more to the point, did they even watch the original? Considering how “The Uninvited” turned out, it’s hard to imagine they did.


Chris said...

Andy, here's what I was able to find out about the Korean title:

"In the original Korean Folktale "Janghwa Hongreyon-jon", the sisters' names are Janghwa and Hongryeon (Rose Flower and Red Lotus)." That's from Wikipedia, so its acuracy is subject to debate.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Thanks for that, Chris.