This is always my main fear regarding American remakes of Asian horror films: that the remake will retroactively influence my appreciation of the original, to the latter’s detriment and my disappointment. It happens so often that I shouldn’t be surprised at this point – really, I should know better. But my curiosity always seems to override my initial instinct to steer clear, to my all too frequent regret.
And so here I am watching The Uninvited, a listless retread of a film I remember admiring quite a bit, South Korea’s A Tale of Two Sisters, from 2003. That film was a hypnotic gothic madhouse of directorial sleight of hand, all heavy atmosphere, herky jerky angles, and arch stylization.
A grim (ha!) fairy tale masquerading as Asian horror, a classical family tragedy nested in a blood soaked screamer, it was an elegant summation and final word on a subgenre that was finally exhausted on its native soil, even as it started to infect the rest of the world. I loved every crazy second of it, and all the more so because for most of its run time I could never figure out exactly what was going on, and even its final twists and revelations just exacerbated the confusion. Well played, all around.
By disentangling and flattening out the plot, and twists, of the original film – by trading in subtlety for blunt force obviousness – The Uninvited does little to justify its existence, missing the boat entirely on the source of the original’s power. Taken on its own, the new film is inoffensive, with a few hints of promise that are quickly squashed and squandered. No harm, no foul.
But then I started to wonder if The Uninvited’s sundry flaws exposed flaws that were actually there in A Tale of Two Sisters all along, inherent weaknesses that were only obfuscated by Ji-woon Kim’s superb direction. I really hoped not.
Then I started to wonder if I could – or should—ever go back and watch the original again, and whether I would see it and enjoy it the way I did the first time. Then I started to wonder when I had become such an impressionable lightweight that I would allow a mostly forgettable remake by an American production team, using British directors, none of whom had actually even seen the original film before agreeing to make this (don’t believe me? It’s right there the bonus featurette on the DVD. Everyone cops to it, like it’s some point of pride), influence my opinion of a film I saw and liked five years ago.
Then I started to wonder why I spend so much time getting my dander up, over and over again, over Asian horror (J-horror, K-horror, whatever) and all the American remakes those films have spawned – why I spend so much time and energy all a-worry over a genre that I don’t even particularly like. And then I started to wonder why I’m putting you through all this pointless agonizing, dear gentle reader, and not staying on point and talking about the film actually in hand. Point taken.
So, I think we’ve established that The Uninvited is a remake. And though nominally true to the original, in execution it’s actually more along the lines of a retake, using the same basic story and framework as a point of reference, but going off in different directions – narratively, stylistically—with it. The difference between the original and this remake is that The Uninvited has no idea what direction it wants to take, but just lumbers along like a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled out of parts that never seem to work together.
Though it revisits certain Asian horror tropes, they seems perfunctory and detached, inserted because of contractual obligation rather than necessity. It also dredges up bits from The Shining— ghost children intoning certain doom to our heroine; a sprawling, isolated house full of ghouls and specters of the past and present—to no discernible end. For awhile it seems to brush against the Grimm Brothers/fairy tale aspect—again, an isolated house deep in the woods, on an island, along with an evil stepmother figure, and plenty of symbol heavy imagery—that buoyed the original. And then it just shrugs off the trappings of horror and fairy tale altogether to turn into a thriller along the lines of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or The Stepfather, which is where it slowly starts to redeem itself before lapsing into Lifetime Movie territory, and then ends with two gimmicky twists nestled inside of one another that would only come as a genuine surprise to someone who’d never once seen a movie before in his/her life.
You still game? Well, if The Uninvited has any appeal (and it has a smidgen) it’s in the cast, which does its best with the material, and almost salvages things in the end. The problem is that each of the principals operates and acts as if in a totally different film from each other, which I guess dovetails nicely with the mishmash nature of the film itself, though it just makes the performances all the more jarring.
The otherworldly Emily Browning, who plays our young, tormented heroine, looks like she stepped straight out of fairy tale/fantasy film central casting (she seems a natural for this, as her only other notable role came in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). Her alabaster translucence, coupled with an understated tremulousness that always threatens to—but never quite does—break out into hysterics, lends her an amenable air of the innocent being led to the slaughter.
David Strathairn, ever a bulwark of calm intelligence, invests the father with enough gravitas to masquerade concern, but which conceals icky, Freudian sexual tensions which I might be wrong in reading into the film, but seems to reside there anyway, intentional or not, and indicates a more promising path for what the film might have been, if it had been braver, or seamier, or both.
But the ubiquitous Elisabeth Banks is the real star and draw of the show here, giving her all as the moustache-twirling wicked stepmother (well, if stepmothers had mustaches to twirl). Her screaming hysterics, when they come, are thankfully unrestrained, though the quiet menace with which she slinks in and out of the frame the rest of the time is perhaps more chilling. I wouldn’t say to see the movie just for the sake of seeing her in it, but it is a worthwhile point of comparison to be able to see her here when recalling about her superb, soulful portrayal of Laura Bush in last year’s W.
The Uninvited arrives on DVD shortly after its short theatrical run with scant extras. A 20-minute featurette, “Unlocking the Uninvited”, does little to unlock anything, really, especially the central mystery of why this unnecessary and uninspired remake was ever made. Interviews with the husband and wife producing duo Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald yield the aforementioned startling revelation that neither had actually seen the source material prior to greenlighting and backing the project.
Nor had the directors. Nor, apparently, had the screenwriters, if the final result is to be trusted. This bizarrely deliberate detachment from the source material is telling, and bears its mark all over the eventual product, like the film is some sorry, forgotten stepchild best relegated to the corner.
A handful of deleted scenes are really just extensions of scenes already in the finished film. They add a few nuances and hints, but not much else, just foreshadowing and telegraphing the final big twists more than necessary. An alternate ending is nearly identical to the one in the film, and adds nothing substantial to the final tally.