I'm going to be very, very unfair to directors Charles and Thomas Guard and admit that I can't help but wonder what The Uninvited would have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had directed it instead. The movie's concept hints at so many Hitchcockian high notes, from big atmospheric houses to psychologically damaged women, but the Guard brothers stuff it instead with horror movie cliches, including stringy-haired corpses, stone-faced ghost children and creepy hands popping up out of nowhere. Every time The Uninvited steps close to operating on a psychological, genuinely disturbing level, it reverts back into easy scares and scantily clad girls ascending spooky stairs.
10 months after seeing her terminally ill mother died in an accidental explosion, Anna (Emily Browning) has been released from the mental hospital, sent back to live in a jaw-droppingly gorgeous lakeside Maine home with her distant author dad (David Strathairn), sister Alex (Ariel Kebbel) and dad's new girlfriend Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), who also happened to have been mom's caretaker before she died. Given that she's still haunted by dreams in which blood drips from keyholes and crows feast at the dining room table, Anna can only focus on lounging in the sun for so long.
Anna's ex-flame Matt (Jesse Moss) wants to tell her he knows what really happened the night her mom died. Anna's mom, in ghostly form, much more directly points at Rachel and screams "Murder!" And Google, in its infinite wisdom, suggests Rachel may actually be a woman who once cared for a family of kids...until they turned up dead. One of those kids, an appropriately creepy redhead, keeps showing up to glare at Anna. And Anna's also followed around the house by the bell her mom used to call for help from her sick bed, which is both impossible given that the bell blew up in the boat house, and not that scary as far as stalkers go.
All this, plus a strand of pearls that is somehow evidence, points to Rachel being the murderer, and Alex and Anna resolve to solve things one weekend when Dad leaves town. It all devolves to a point that practically invites audience laughter, and though it's to the movie's credit that some of it is nervous laughter, nothing at the end of the movie, including the big twist, feels remotely credible.
Browning, with her big round face and expressive eyes, is pretty good as the terrified naif who must rely on her big sister to do any of the fighting back. But when it comes to the twisty ending, Browning isn't up for it, and the film falls apart where it could have at least taken on a new level of meaning. Banks tries hard but is adrift as Rachel, whose character fails to develop one way or another, and Strathairn probably earned a good paycheck here, given how few scenes he has and how little he has do when he's in them.
The Uninvited works better as a Maine travel guide than a horror movie, with all the shots of sun-drenched lakes and misty mountains in the distance. The scares are interspersed in-between these landscape shots, but the film never achieves an actual mood of mystery, and the occasional appearance of ghosts seems more to keep the audience interested than to add to the story. Take away the ghosts and the Freud-lite dreams, and give more time to Banks' tightly coiled creepiness, and The Uninvited could have gotten somewhere. Instead it's another wasted effort from the dry, dry well of Asian horror remakes.