Anna has been having a terrible year, even by teen standards. It started, as so many of these things do, with her mother. Mom was bedridden for the longest time with some awful disease, and she'd exiled herself to the boathouse down the hill from the family's island mansion — possibly to escape the sounds of her husband having it off with her live-in nurse, a frosty blonde named Rachael. Then, very suspiciously, the boathouse burned down, and Mom along with it. Anna, in a fit of acting-out, slit her wrists and woke up in a mainland bughouse. Now the shrinks have turned her loose and sent her back home to her father and her sister Alex and ... Rachael, who's still living in. Can things get any worse?

Need you ask? "The Uninvited" is that too-seldom-seen thing: a traditional psycho-horror movie made with smarts and style, which arrives at a creepy conclusion with its honor intact. Looking back on its artful feints and misdirections, you realize that the key to its knotty puzzle is as plain as the knife in your neck, if you'd only been paying attention. Which I guess I wasn't. Too creeped-out, maybe.

The movie is a spirited remake of South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon's 2003 shocker, "A Tale of Two Sisters." This English-language version manages to approach the gorgeous visual design of that film — a considerable achievement in itself — while at the same time paring away or tightening-up some of its more ambiguous elements. The Guard Brothers (Charlie and Tom to their agents) are the latest English directors to make the ever-shorter trip from TV commercials to feature films, and with "The Uninvited" they've delivered a solid debut. Both brothers also write and shoot (although not here, apparently), and so they seem especially sensitive to story-shaping and gradations of color and mood. And they've been especially sharp in casting the picture. Australian actress Emily Browning (last seen here in the under-acclaimed "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events") brings a strong sense of beleaguered resilience (along with impressively pillowy lips and gull-wing cheekbones) to the role of Anna; and Arielle Kebbel ("The Grudge 2") is a convincing visual match as her elder sister, Alex. David Strathairn does everything that can be done with the role of their dad, which isn't a lot (it was a stick-figure part in the original film, too); but Elizabeth Banks (of "Role Models" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno") is a real surprise as the malevolent Rachael — who knew you could look cute with a carving fork?

And what are all these characters up to? Oh, the usual: Something's Not Right. If Mom's so dead, what's that thing oozing around in the corner? And those three corpse kids in the cemetery — why're they still traipsing about? And that nice delivery boy with the urgent news to impart — what ever happened to him? Did he stumble over one of the bulging bloody trash bags? As for Rachael, she may come on all step-maternal now that she's lassoed Dad, but she seems to whip out a snarl — and a syringe! — whenever he leaves the room. "She's like a crack whore without the dignity," Alex says. Please take your undead hand off my leg.

"The Uninvited" shares its dark, sneaky secret with ... oh, let's say a number of other crafty psych-out movies starring people like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro (not to mention Cécile De France). It's not a picture likely to set off any large cultural tremors, but its smallness of scale is part of what makes it such an enjoyable watch. And anyway — dude, what is that thing crawling around under your skin?

("The Uninvited" is a Paramount Pictures release. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)

Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "New in Town" and "Taken," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "The Uninvited."

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