Coraline and The Uninvited share a sensibility of odd-girl nightmares---a sense that the world isn't really the simple place one's parents and peers believe it to be. It's the movies' trajectories that are so different. Without giving the specifics of their endings away, Coraline is about a girl coming out of her shell, and The Uninvited is about a girl crawling into hers.
In The Uninvited's case, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but is indicative of a recent fatalistic trend in teen horror. The opposite of the youth empowerment and justification of movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, which reassure, "Yes, you can find the strength to defeat Freddy Krueger, even if your mom won't help and your boyfriend falls asleep watching a swimsuit competition when he's supposed to be on guard." Its message is: "Yup, you're pretty fucked up."
The movie fortunately has a few things going for it, not the least of which is that it spins J-horror influence away from the usual hushed hallways, humourless protagonists and refusal to explain anything that's going on. There are still spooky ghost children, but that's the price you pay (it's a remake of Korea's box-office horror champ A Tale of Two Sisters). The Uninvited's well-photographed take on teenage dread (the outdoor nighttime scenes are forebodingly dim, as though they're only illuminated by moonlight), introduces what seems to be a predictable premise. Anna (Emily Browning) returns from psychological care to her father and sister, 10 months after her debilitated mother was burnt to death in a house fire. But her new stepmom Rachael (Elizabeth Banks) seems to be up to no good, a suspicion amplified when Anna keeps hallucinating that she's killed people.
Directors Charles and Thomas Guard wisely understand that Banks has a cold screen presence, which has done no favours in her multiple romantic roles last year. As Anna and her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) play Nancy Drew, the movie gets wittier and more interesting than it first lets on. It's nothing special, but every time one's about to dismiss it for no surprises, it will pull one out.
As The Uninvited is serviceable commercial dementia, Coraline laps it several times: It's great movie fantasy. Stop-motion wiz Henry Selick adapts Neil Gaiman's novel with a dreamy feel for childhood afternoon adventures. The first risk is that titular hero Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) isn't made gratingly cute. Gaiman and Selick accept her as a weird kid, and that makes her adventure endearing. Her parents are reclusive writers with no time to play. While exploring her new home, Coraline tumbles across a doorway to an alternate universe, where her family is cool, the food tastes great and the universe seems good. No matter that here, everyone's eyes are replaced by buttons.
Selick reveals his sights and surprises with active curiosity. Though the film shares much with the episodic rules and encounters of Spirited Away and Pan's Labyrinth (and forefathers The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland), its texture is complimented by the viewer's desire to dig deeper---discovering what wonder or horror is uncovered next. Older children can take Coraline as a formative filmgoing experience: It's as close as a movie gets to the lucid nightmare feel of good fantasy writing.
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