The ties that bind a close-knit group of friends are severely tested by the shared demons of the past in Quentin Lee’s effective supernatural chiller The Unbidden. At first glance, this seems to constitute an unexpected detour for a director best known for the fiercely confrontational drama of Ethan Mao (2004) and the sharp-tongued satire of The People I’ve Slept With (2009). Once he introduces the social circle of his beleaguered heroine, however, it becomes clear that Lee is again questioning the cultural codes of Asian-American communities with the horror genre providing an accessible framework. As the director has never shied away from picking at uncomfortable or even taboo aspects of relationships, the horror tropes facilitate a distancing effect that enables the unflinching inclusion of issues that might otherwise be limited to the kind of festival-friendly domestic dramas that The Unbidden occasionally resembles.
Much of the film is confined to the suburban home of Lauren (Tamlyn Tomita), a blocked mystery novelist whose anxieties concerning the upcoming anniversary of an unspecified tragedy and dependence on medication are causing sleepless nights to be following by lost days as she drifts off in front of her laptop. Help arrives in the form of her lifelong friends, cosmetic surgeon Kat (Julia Nickson), model mother Anna (Elizabeth Sung) and spirit practitioner Rachel (Amy Hill). Rachel suggests a séance to expel evil spirits from the house, but upon detecting overbearing negative energy, decides that an exorcism may be necessary if Lauren is ever to achieve peace of mind. No sooner has the group started to summon the spirit world than armed intruder Derek (Hayden Szeto) determinedly walks in with questions about his parentage, prompting a series of flashbacks that concern Lauren’s marriage to the handsome but volatile Jake (Jason Yee).
The biting humour of Narhee Ahn’s craftily layered screenplay swiftly establishes a believable dynamic between the four women whose distinctive personality traits at once clash with and complement one another. A lifetime of friendly rivalry is evoked through snippety exchanges revolving around childhood nicknames, clothing choices, professional success, and the achievements of their offspring, with the alcoholic Kat being the worst offender. Within the horror framework, a skewed sisterhood drama unfolds and the scenes set in the past illustrate how the bright promise of marriage can deteriorate into a cycle of abuse with Lauren (played in this strand by Michelle Krusiec) sadly coming to rationalise victimisation, much to the concerned frustration of her friends. Having worked mostly in television since impressing in such diverse independent features as Saving Face (2004) and Far North (2007), Krusiec delivers a movingly conflicted performance which matches nicely with Tomita’s haunted fragility.
Lee uses the spacious anonymity of the main location to transition smoothly between time periods, thereby adding to the film’s otherworldly atmosphere. He pulls off some old school scares by having things go bump in the night while a climactic possession is partially played for knowing laughs. The traditional supernatural elements of The Unbidden serve to alleviate its intimate examination of emotional trauma, although Lee’s handing of the drama is largely sincere with the excellent cast being allocated ample room within the spooky conceit to create a fractured set of characters whose concealed resentments pose a significantly greater threat than the paranormal activity of a vengeful ghost.