Several years ago, according to an interview on movie site IESB.net, producer Walter F. Parkes bought the rights to a South Korean horror hit without seeing it first. It’s tempting to imagine how Parkes, who produced the blockbuster American version of The Ring, reacted when he finally got around to viewing A Tale of Two Sisters.
While its title alludes to a Korean folktale about an evil stepmother, writer-director Ji-woon Kim’s film quickly goes somewhere weirder. Two teenage sisters — one apparently just returned from a stint in a mental hospital — come to stay with their widowed dad and his new wife in a rustic lake house. While the father remains oblivious, the film quickly becomes a battle of wills between the girls and their beautiful young mother surrogate. It features ghostly visitations in broad daylight, menstrual blood à la Carrie, and other kinds of blood, too. Filmed in glowing jewel tones, it’s art directed within an inch of its life and alternates between moments of terror and sheer incomprehensibility. Think a hybrid of horror, David Lynch and a pre-Raphaelite painting.
Now imagine Parkes and his team (three credited screenwriters) trying to adapt this movie into a PG-13 scare-fest that will appeal to teenage girls taking a break from mall shopping. Titled The Uninvited, this sort-of remake directed by Charles and Thomas Guard retains just enough elements from its source to list on one hand.
The two sisters, for one thing. In this version, the teen fresh from psychiatric care is wide-eyed Anna (Emily Browning), who dreams obsessively about the night her ailing mother died in a mysterious explosion. She returns to the lake house to find passive dad (David Strathairn), sexy soon-to-be stepmother (Elizabeth Banks) — formerly her mother’s nurse — and saucy older sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel), who shares Anna’s suspicions about Dad’s new flame.
The siblings sneak around trying to ferret out what really happened on the fatal night, while twitchy Banks does her best to convince them she’d make a wonderful stepmommy. But Anna keeps dreaming about pissy-faced redheaded children, ghosts with contorted backs and garbage bags with bad things in them.
This is one of those horror films where virtually every scary scene ends with the protagonist’s waking up. While some of those scenes have been borrowed from the original, they’re so poorly paced — and often truncated — that they put The Uninvited squarely in the tradition of American remakes that give Asian horror a bad name. The dreams should plunge the audience into a claustrophobic state of anxiety, making us wonder, What’s real? Instead, they only offer a break from the tiresome family drama.
Evil-stepmother stories bridge cultures and centuries for a reason — they speak to real childhood fears. In the Korean film, actress Jung-ah Yum did an unforgettable twist on this stock character: One minute she was a vamping villainess out of old Hollywood; the next, she seemed as young and frightened as her stepdaughters.
The stepmother in The Uninvited is merely sketchy. Banks, the excellent comic actress from Role Models et al., doesn’t have much to do besides alternating between simpery sweet and vaguely sinister. The relationship between the sisters suffers even more from flat writing. In Sisters, the girls had little dialogue, but a hand clasp conveyed worlds of camaraderie. In The Uninvited, their CW-level banter never really convinces us they have a history together. Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Browning, who played Violet in the Lemony Snicket movie. Her spectral Victorian prettiness is perfect for a Gothic tale, but she isn’t much of an actress.
To its credit, The Uninvited pulls off a decent ending twist, one that should leave nobody confused (unlike the final scenes of Sisters). But it poses a question: Why on earth would one remake a good film so it’s unrecognizable? At this rate, I’m looking forward to an American version of Swedish arthouse hit Let the Right One In, in which the young vampire takes the bullied boy to prom so they can dance to a single by the latest trendy sort-of-goth band. It could be the next Twilight.