“The Unbidden” (2016): Secrets from the Past Haunt a Fractured Group of Friends

Equal parts mystery, thriller, drama, melodrama, and supernatural horror film, director Quentin Lee’s The Unbidden takes viewers through familiar territory to unusual places. The ride has a few small bumps along the way but is definitely worth taking in this tale of treachery, mistrust, and murder.

Lauren (Tamlyn Tomita) is a psychologically fragile writer who lives alone. One Halloween season, disquieting events begin to take place in her house and she suggests to a friend on the phone that they should meet together with two more friends at her house that evening. Alcoholic plastic surgeon Kat (Julia Nickson), prissy mother to a “perfect” family Anna (Elizabeth Sung), and spirit practitioner Rachel (Amy Hill) take her up on her invitation. Once pleasantries and barbs are exchanged, Rachel suggests an exorcism to cleanse the house of an evil presence that she feels.

Rachel (Amy Hill, left) holds a seance for her friend Lauren (Tamlyn Tomita, center), while their more skeptical friends Anna (Elizabeth Sung, right) and Kat (Julia Nickson, bottom) have mixed feelings about the idea in The Unbidden.

Soon after the supernatural cleansing begins, an intruder named Derek (Hayden Szeto) enters the house, wielding a weapon, and demanding to know the answer to a question (no spoilers here!). This sets off a series of events that opens up old wounds and mysteries – it turns out that these ladies went through a harrowing ordeal a couple of decades earlier – and presents the quartet of friends with deadly new decisions to make.

Narhee Ahn’s screenplay reaches high by attempting to combine all of the different elements that I mentioned earlier. The shifts in tone feel a bit odd at times but never awkward. Director Quentin Lee does a masterful job of balancing the disparate ingredients of Ahn’s screenplay together. The thriller elements play out well and the horror sequences also offer a good deal of suspense, with some occasional humor to lighten up the proceedings a bit. Most dramatic scenes come across well though there are a few moments that border on soap opera territory; luckily, that line is not crossed.

Kat (Julia Nickson) is the victim of supernatural terror in Lauren’s home.

Tamlyn Tomita is absolutely superb as the troubled Lauren and she quite obviously gives her all in this standout performance. Her every moment on the screen feels authentic, no matter what emotion she is conveying. Amy Hill as the quirky Rachel also does a splendid job, bringing believability to a character that could seem like a stereotypical eccentric in lesser hands. Elizabeth Sung felt a bit stiff in her portrayal of Anna, but at least part of that may be down to the mannerisms of her character. Julia Nickson seems to have fun with her role as a wealthy, sarcastic, lush, though at times she treads most closely to the soap opera territory I mentioned.

Part of The Unbidden is told in flashbacks, with younger actresses portraying the characters in those earlier times. For these younger actresses, Akemi Look – who stars in the short Love, Work and Other Demons, which I recently reviewed for Gruesome Magazine  – is an amazing standout as young Kat. She obviously has a ball with her role and is a pleasure to watch. Kimberly-Rose Wolter is impressive as young Rachel, an empathetic soul who hasn’t quite fully embraced the spiritual qualities her character will later develop. Michelle Krusiec  – recently appearing in  The Invitation – also shines as young Lauren, who goes from optimistic bride to abused wife and beyond; Krusiec acquits herself well on this emotionally tough journey. Karin Anna Cheung is solid as young Anna, though her character isn’t given as much to do as the others.

The four friends helped each other through a nightmarish event more than two decades earlier. Portraying the younger characters are (left to right): Akemi Look, Kimberly-Rose Wolter, Michelle Krusiec (head down), and Karin Anna Cheung.

Jason Yee gives an admirable turn as Jake, young Lauren’s husband. Jake develops a mean streak during the course of their marriage and Yee handles the dark emotions well. One quite uncomfortable scene between Yee and Michelle Krusiec is tough to watch because of the content, but the actors give it their all in unflinching performances. Hayden Szeto plays Derek as somewhat  aloof, especially considering some of the things done to or asked of his character.

The present-day characters are an interesting lot and the dynamics behind their fractured friendships are revealed over the course of The Unbidden. At times, though, it seems they are indifferent and even nonchalant about committing acts of violence, and certain elements seem to be glossed over quickly. Also, one scene near the end sees a statement of forgiveness and the absolution of a certain character that seemed quite a stretch to me, considering what that character did in the first act.

Tamlyn Tomita is magnificent as a psychologically scarred writer whose home is invaded by ghosts from  this world and the afterlife.

The Unbidden is always entertaining, and there is plenty of supernatural spookiness, blood, and murder to be had. Director Quentin Lee fills his film with interestingly framed shots and coaxes admirable performances from his cast, and balances the divergent elements of Narhee Ahn’s unique, ambitious screenplay well. Though there are dark and emotionally heavy facets in the film, there is fun to be had here, as well. I recommend The Unbidden for these reasons and also for its fresh attempt at originality in the horror genre.

The Unbidden: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)


Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.