Back in the long lost era of the early 2000s The Ring came out and Hollywood went on a delirious bender of remaking Japanese horror films for American audiences. Most of both the original films snapped up in this frenzy and their remakes were pretty worthless, but the whole exercise did serve to draw people’s attention to foreign movies that they might have otherwise overlooked.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this director Kim Jee-woon’s Janghwa, Hongryeon became the highest grossing Korean horror movie of all time and some executive presumably went through a thought process along the lines of “hey Korea is close to Japan, right? And the kids these days like them J-horror movies, right? Let’s stick it in cinemas and option the rights for a remake!”
Said remake took its sweet time coming out (more on that later) but the original was released in the US under the title A Tale of Two Sisters and turned out to be decidedly not the cheap Ring knock-off that many people, including a teenage me, assumed it was going to be.
The movie opens with titular sisters Su-Mi and Su-Yeon returning home after a long stay in a psychiatric hospital following an initially unrevealed traumatic event. As soon as they arrive it’s clear that all is not well with the girls’ family: their father appears to have married their mother’s nurse, Eun-joo, after her death from a terminal illness and Su-Mi feels immediately jealous and hostile toward their new stepmother, an attitude that’s seemingly justified when she begins harassing the younger and more fragile Su-Yeon.
And then a whole lot of really weird shit starts happening. Su-Mi has disturbing dreams about a ghost woman, both her and Eun-joo accuse each other of various malevolent acts with Su-Yeon at the center, Eun-joo also sees the ghost and begins acting in a decidedly unhinged manner….
As the movie goes on it delves firmly into psychological horror territory, with an increasingly tenuous reality cutting away to a tapestry of nightmares and delusions until the climax of the film becomes a frenzied fever dream. Is there actually a ghost, or is it all a delusion of Su-Mi/Eun-joo’s minds? What exactly happened before the events of the film to cause the sisters’ trip to the psychiatric hospital, and is it connected to whatever malevolent force may or may not be lurking in their house? What secret is their long-suffering Dad keeping from them? Is any of this even real?
A Tale of Two Sisters takes a loooong time setting itself up, barely even hinting at any horror elements for quite a while, but when the ghostly activity pops off in this movie it pops off hardcore. The very first scare in the movie is hands-down one of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever watched, a drawn-out encounter with a ghost that quickly reaches the point most such scenes tend to abruptly end only to go on and on for excruciating seconds. And I’ve already talked at length about the film’s one and only jump scare.
But the thing is, these scenes are few and far between. A Tale of Two Sisters spends most of its run-time playing off an atmosphere of pervasive dread rather than outright scariness, an atmosphere that builds and builds until it becomes near-suffocating…. only for the fog to lift right at the end and reveal the movie to be neither the standard ghost story its marketing presented it as or the psychological horror story it presented itself as for most of its runtime, but something much more tragic and beautiful.
This slight of hand is aided by the absolutely sumptuous visuals of the movie, the sisters’ lakeside house lovingly shot in all of its brooding glory, and what might be one of the best film soundtracks of all time. Even calling it a horror movie feels like a disservice; it is very much scary as hell, and even the penultimate scene is a wonderfully chilling traditional haunted house routine, but at its core A Tale of Two Sisters is a whole lot more than that: a crushing, haunting story about what makes and breaks a family, and the hideous consequences that can arise when the fragile bonds between people living under the same roof are strained too far by petty jealousy and strife.
A Tale of Two Sisters is probably my favourite horror movie of all time, and right up there in my top ten favourite movies, period. Definitely check it out.
aaaaaand then there’s the remake.
Look, I didn’t think this was going to be good. The original just isn’t one of those movies you can really replicate, excelling due to a unique combination of creative elements that you’re just not going to be able to recreate. Hell, just losing that heartbreaking score is going to doom any attempt to inferiority.
But I tried to go into it with an open mind. I’m not automatically opposed to remakes, and from the trailers I could see that the film made an admirable attempt to capture the decidedly un-Hollywood visual style of the original. So yes, I had an open mind about The Uninvited.
Boy did they fuck it up
The story follows broadly the same outline as the original: sisters return from mental hospital, dad is sleeping with their dead mom’s former nurse, tension and paranormal shit ensues. And also there’s some utter bullshit about a killer nanny that feels like it was supposed to be a separate movie at some point.
The Uninvited acts as a sort of nightmarish dystopian what-if scenario, starting from the same premise as the original but going in the most trite, ham-fisted direction possible, using the material to build a formulaic horror-mystery instead of the bewildering psychological puzzle box of the original movie. Oh and instead of the darkly beautiful finale, the pay-off this time around is a stupid and nonsensical plot twist. Because of course.
The only good thing you can say about the Uninvited is that it looks quite nice. Other than that I have nothing but utter disdain for it. Me and A Tale of Two Sisters will sniff haughtily at it as we ride away across a bleak ocher rainbow on the back of a unicorn made out of psychological dread and regret.