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Scared Skinny: South Korean thriller retread is good for token frights 

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By the time young Emily Browning - the Australian waif who stars in The Uninvited - sees her 8th or 9th scary, decaying corpse come to life I begin to wonder if anyone ever considered late-stage anorexia as a cause for these hallucinations. Between last month's The Unborn (featuring the sharp-hipped Odette Yustman) and this movie, I am now certain that a steady diet of pizza and pancakes can ward off ghosts.

Unfortunately the requisite beanpole heroine isn't the only well-beaten path that this film walks. Like other post-holiday horror releases we're treated to basic thriller formulas, teen drinking, PG-13 half-nudity - along with more scared-stiff and seemingly starving protagonists who should probably stop at a deli on the way to the police station.

Restyled from South Korea's 2003 horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters, Uninvited stars Browning as Anna, a traumatized teen who witnessed the horrifying death of her mother in a fiery explosion. We are introduced to the girl as she is being released from a mental hospital, where the token psychiatrist is giving token non-AMA-approved advice: "Finish what you started," the shrink tells Anna the day she's released. I couldn't help but think this was lousy advice for a teen girl who was institutionalized for trying to commit suicide. But hey, maybe that's not what he meant.

Anna is picked up at the nuthouse by her father, a bestselling author played with restraint by the tremendous David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum, Good Night and Good Luck). Anna's homecoming to dad's huge Maine shore house is ruined by the appearance of dad's new live-in girlfriend, Rachel Summers (Elizabeth Banks, taking a break from Judd Apatow comedies). Rachel has the whole town uttering whispers of nefariousness afoot, since it has only been 10 months since Anna's mother died. Plus, Rachel's remaking of the family home is not welcomed by Anna's hard-drinking older sister and fierce ally, Alex, who brings Anna up to speed on conspiracy theories involving Rachel; the girls pretty much become female versions of the Hardy Boys from there.

It's hard for me to objectively criticize Banks' performance, simply because I'm accustomed to her comedic roles. Her presence in every scene distracted. I am used to goofy sarcasm, not this creepy, passive-aggressive psycho. Banks has a pleasant, welcome face that doesn't quite hit the "murderous step mom" note. But if you squint, she's scary enough.

Teenagers looking for a reason to jump, screech, and perhaps engage in some involuntary urination may want to grab the plastic pants and hit this one up. There is the ubiquitous scary-forest scene, cemetery-revelation scene, creaky-door scene and plenty of keyholes and crannies littered throughout the house where evils of the underworld can hide out and jump whenever the movie's score hits the perfect lull.

More discerning moviegoers, however, may want to sit it out. The Uninvited styles itself as a member of the psychological horror/thriller genre. I find this classification misleading. This film makes no attempt to probe the character's psyche or challenge our preconceptions in any meaningful way. There is a psychological element to the plot, sure, but most of that is demonstrated through a hoodwinking of the audience that will leave some feeling betrayed, and others rolling their eyes. Count me among the latter group.

The Uninvited


Starring: Emily Browning, Elizabeth Banks, David Strathairn. Directed by Charles Guard and Thomas Guard. Rated PG-13.


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