Small Screen Spectre: The Uninvited (1996)

Tobe or not Tobe? Dave’s a little Hoopered out by a TV movie that has designs on imitating a genre classic.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A nuclear family move into a new build property located deep in the bowels of suburbia. Eerie things begin to happen in the form of objects moving, and a presence that seems intent on targeting the youngest child in the household. Spooked by such manifestations, the mother decides to consult a diminutive and quirky psychic, in the hope of finding a solution to a problem that’s beginning to spiral out of control.

Though the evidence might suggest otherwise, THE UNINVITED didn’t set out to be a cheap Poltergeist (1982) knock-off. Instead, it was pitched as a true story to (loosely) recount the curious case of Ron and Doretta Johnson, who, in 1987, bought a former motel in Marion, Indiana for less than half the asking price. However, once they had moved into their dream home, they were faced with a barrage of paranormal events that seemed to stem from the memory of Doretta’s abusive childhood.

Presumably the grim background of the central character didn’t sit too well with network television execs. For this TV movie, Doretta Johnson becomes Pattie Johnson (superbly played by Sharon Laurence, fresh from three years of Emmy nominations for NYPD Blue), and the trauma she’s attempting to overcome is that of a recent miscarriage. Her husband, Charles (Beau Bridges), works away quite often so she’s left to deal with the strange phenomena that’s affecting her young son Jonathan (Alex D. Linz from Home Alone 3 (1997)) by herself.

Help arrives at the halfway point in the shape of clairvoyant Delia (Shirley Knight) – but by this time it’s a challenge not to have gotten a little weary towards The Uninvited‘s relentlessly derivative nature. This isn’t a slight on the fact that it’s been made for television either – after all, you can look back at classics like Crowhaven Farm (1970) or The Haunting Passion (1983) to see the potential of a good small screen scare story. This, though, is too much of a weak Saturday afternoon matinee-type deal, and scripter Karen Clarke’s preference for melodrama over the macabre means that director Larry Shaw is fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

Writing in The Spokesman, John Martin remarked how “despite the film’s lack of originality, Lawrence turns in a gutsy performance that can catch you by surprise. About the time you’re ready to laugh at what a cheesy movie this is you’ll find yourself deeply involved in her character” [1]. That’s about as kind you can be to what’s certainly not a ‘bad movie’ – just one that’s far too flat and safe-seeming for its own good.

The Uninvited aired on CBS on 29th October 1996, and was released on video here in the U.K. in autumn ’97 as ‘Victim of the Haunt’ – the same title given to its U.S. DVD release in 2004.

USA ● 1996 ● Horror, TVM ● 89mins

Sharon Lawrence, Beau Bridges, Shirley Knight, Alex D. Linz ● Dir. Larry Shaw ● Wri. Karen Clark

[1] ‘Poltergeist’ Lives on as ‘Uninvited’ by John Martin, The Spokesman, 29th October 1996

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