The camera is close, the breathing heavy. In the dark, two teens grope, the sound of surf distant. “I love you,” murmurs the young man. “And I have a condom.”
That tears it. Anna (Emily Browning) pushes off her suitor and heads across the beach and into the woods, where she makes her way through trees and shadows, her skimpy top and short shorts ensuring that you get a good long look at her pale, perfect, moonlit flesh. “I’m at a party,” she says in voiceover, “And all I want to do is get home.”
So now you know. In these early moments of The Uninvited, Anna’s describing a dream, which means that she’s in for all manner of eerie encounters, from ooky forest noises and sacks filled with cracked-boned corpses to long dark hallways and a keyhole that drips blood. Facing down such clichés, Anna repeatedly sticks her hand inside the sack or her eye to the keyhole, then pulls back in horror, mouth open and fingers twitching. Stuck inside her dream inside a horror movie based on another (South Korean) horror movie, Anna has few options: her course is set, she just has to ride out the surreal silliness as best she can. Ostensibly, she is also seeking the source of her distress, which inevitably has to do with prior pain and betrayal and revenge.
It turns out that Anna’s describing her dream for a therapist (Dean Paul Gibson), and that she’s been institutionalized for 10 months. He suggests at the end of their session that she’s well enough to go home, that even if she feels confused now, she’ll “figure out” the dream when she needs to (“We survive by remembering,” Dr. Silberling offers cryptically, “Sometimes we survive by forgetting”). Anna scampers to her room to pack, plainly thrilled to leave, even if it does disappoint a scraggly-haired fellow patient (Heather Doerksen), who moans, “Who will I tell my stories to?” In a more coherent movie, this goodbye would be a clue to ensuing puzzles, for The Uninvited is indeed about storytelling as a process, how details and patterns shape audience perceptions, how narrators may or may not be reliable. But Anna’s story — as she seems to be telling it to herself — tends not to hold up under even the merest scrutiny, which makes it more wearying than beguiling.
At home Anna is reminded that her mother (Maya Massur) died horribly: ailing and confined to a bed in the boathouse (where she lies with a bell tied to her writ, in order to summon help), she was burned up in an accidental gas explosion. Anna’s father Steven (David Strathairn) has since taken up with the nurse, Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), a situation that irks Anna no end, a point she makes by rolling her eyes and exchanging dark glances with her older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel). Rachael has redecorated the house to remove all signs of the dead mom, but the boathouse has been reconstructed, so that Anna can visit it and be haunted regularly by her mom’s Asian-horror-styled ghost. When she describes these fearsome reunions to Alex, the girls decide right away on their meaning: Rachael was responsible for the explosion, and so they must gather evidence in order to learn the story of what really happened that night, and oh yes, bring the interloper to justice. Anna is especially interested in recovering Steven from Rachael’s clutches, a goal underlined nightly as she listens to their sex-time moans from down the hall.
The sex-with-daddy business serves as an underpinning to Anna’s fundamental trauma. Its banal source is eventually revealed, though only after a series of don’t-go-in-there plot detours, in which the camera takes her point of view as she follows ghosts through shadowy corridors and cemeteries, or reaches for those sacks of crippled-up bodies that keep appearing whenever Anna is reminded of death or sex. Cast as virginal compared to her always-bikinied, apparently slutty sister, Anna watches nervously as Alex rummages through Rachael’s silky undergarments, making fun of her giant silver vibrator (which she immediately deems “Mr. Chubby”). Resenting her access to their father, the girls remain unable to get his attention.
Amid the nuclear familial hubbub, Anna finds herself briefly distracted by Matt (Jesse Moss), the boy from the first scene/her nightmare. A local kid who delivers groceries to Anna’s house, Matt seems genuinely happy and shy to see Anna, apologizing for that business about the condom. She seems not to care much, until he appears at her bedroom window one evening with another sort of delivery, namely, another story about what happened that fateful night of the accident: he was, he says, a witness, having followed her home after the little bit of beach intimacy. Aside from the fact that he was stalking her then and has now showed up with an unbearable urge to remove his shirt and reveal his sturdy tanned torso, Anna welcomes Matt into her bedroom. One of several moments in The Uninvited that may or may not have to do with its title, the teens’ moonlit clinch soon becomes a harrowing lesson in the risks of illicit sex and especially, the risks embodied by girls fixated on their fathers. It doesn’t make much sense, but it is disturbing.