It's getting to the point where it's genuinely hard to imagine a modern American horror movie that isn't a remake of something, a trend being perpetrated in cinemas as I write by Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, and set to continue in the coming months with the likes of An American Werewolf in London, The Birds, Fright Night, Fun House, The Fury, Hellraiser, The Host, Monster Squad, Near Dark, The Orphanage, Piranha (in 3D!), Poltergeist, The Stepfather, They Live... oh please, will someone make them STOP!*
With Halloween approaching, a sizeable number of the previous wave of US remakes have been hitting the home video market, two of which – Friday the 13th and It's Alive – we've covered on the site. Now we have The Uninvited, which is not a remake of the 1944 chiller of the same name starring Ray Milland, but of Kim Ji-woon's 2003 Janghwa, Hongryeon, or A Tale of Two Sisters as it was known in the west. An atmospheric mystery thriller with supernatural overtones, it's a film I enjoyed a great deal, but it was never one of my absolute favourite Asian genre works and I was thus genuinely interested to see how it would be reinterpreted. Solidly but unadventurously, as it happens, and with a late-film twist that, though effective if you've not seen the original, should still trigger a small bout of déjà-vu, recalling in particular the climax of a far more adventurous and mesmerising film of recent years that I can't name without potentially ruining the surprise for first-timers.**
The story goes like this. After undergoing treatment at a psychiatric hospital following the death of her seriously ill mother in an explosion, young Anna (Emily Browning) returns to the family home inhabited by her sister Alex, her father Steven (the ever-cool David Strathairn) and his new girlfriend Rachel (Elizabeth Banks), the young nurse who cared for Anna's mother during her illness. Rachel is despised by Alex, who though angry that she was left alone during Anna's absence, still has a strong bond with her sister, and when Anna starts having visions that suggest her mother was murdered, the pair begin investigating Rachel and discover that she's not quite who she claims to be.
Unobtrusively directed by bothers Charles and Thomas Grant and decently performed across the board, the story development is sometimes handicapped by the curse of convention. Thus when Anna doesn't have time to get the truth about Mum's death from local boy Matt and arranges instead to meet him later you know instantly that he's marked for damage or death, and the truth about Rachel's identity and purpose is also discovered far too early for there not to be more to it than a scheming stepmother with a penchant for murder. In atmosphere the film does quite well, though the isolated beauty of the lakeside setting and the gentle bob of the floating jetty actually prove more dream-like than the manufactured nightmare imagery elsewhere, and the image of Anna's burned mother crawling across the floor in shadow, while genuinely unsettling in itself, has been borrowed and adapted from Ringu, which only adds to the prevailing second-hand feel.
As American horror remakes go, The Uninvited fares better than many, but as with so many of its brethren, it insists on providing explanations for things that were left pleasingly ambiguous in the original, and as a whole is neither substantial nor inventive enough to turn this weary cynic around on the whole issue of modern horror remakes. Once again you're likely to get more out of it if you've not seen Janghwa, Hongryeon or the other films from which it quietly borrows, but as ever I'd suggest you should hunt them out first, although obviously my reluctance to name one of them does make that a little tricky. It's still worth a look – whether it's worth purchasing is another matter completely.
In what is proving to be an increasing common DVD tweak, the aspect ratio here is anamorphic 1.78:1, slightly cropped from the (apparently) 1.85:1 original in order that the picture completely fill the screen on that nice new LCD TV. Now while this only involves a small amount of picture cropping at the sides it still means that we're not getting the film as it was originally presented, presumably because the distributors don't want to get complaints from the dopey about the small black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I thought we'd put all that behind us with the demise of 4:3 TVs. In other respects this is an excellent transfer whose contrast, colour and detail are all just how you'd like them and which upscales handsomely.
We're talking modern supernatural thriller with a 5.1 soundtrack here, so there are certain things you can take for granted in the way of clarity and dynamic range. The surrounds are nowhere near as busy as you'd expect, being largely reserved for music and background atmos effects, though there is some distinct separation at the front and a thunderclap that's sent nicely around the room (it's funny how modern filmmakers just can't let go of the thunderstorm as a spooky atmosphere setter), as well as some punch LFE bass on an explosion.
Unlocking the Uninvited (18:15)
The sort of unrevealing, back-slapping EPK that seems almost de rigueur on DVDs of modern American movies (or at least ones that actually have extra features), as key cast and crew personnel talk about adapting the original Korean film and start sentences with the words "I loved the..." and suchlike. Not much here even if you like the film, though it does put faces to the crew names.
Deleted Scenes (5:29)
Four deleted scenes, all mildly interesting in their way but they'd be more so with some indication of why they were removed.
Alternate Ending (0:50)
Not a drastic change from the one used, but still of interest for a specific character moment.
Another Asian original gets homogenised for the western palette, with any ambiguity removed and anything approaching the morally risqué toned down to virtual invisibility. The Uninvited is decently made and performed, but still feels wrapped in the same blanket of element recycling that has come close to suffocating the whole J-horror sub-genre. The DVD transfer is a good one, but the extra features add little to the experience.
* I note with some cheer that five years after I wrote this, the majority of these proposed remakes have not seen the light of day.
** If you're not worried about spoiling the ending or already know it, I've identified the film in question in the paragraph below, which you can read by highlighting it. be aware that in reading it you're also going to find out the end of another, as-yet unidentified film.
The big surprise at the end of The Uninvited is that Alex actually died in the same fire that killed her mother and that her presence throughout the film and her stepmother's evil intentions were all the product of Anna's imagination. Thus when Alex kills Rachel she actually dies by Anna's hand. This very concept was also at the heart of David Cronenberg's superb Spider, which also begins with the release of the title character from a psychiatric institution to which he is returned at the film's end, while his memories of his mother's murder and her replacement by a scheming would-be stepmother are also the product of his neurotic imagination, and also result in her death at his hands.