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We return once again to Asian horror with this one, but instead of another J-horror outing we have our first South Korean or K-horror, as it is referred to, effort in “Tale of Two Sisters.” There are some superficial similarities to the previous Japanese works talked about previously. For instance, there are more lank hair vengeful spirits, and it does feature one scene with a twitchy pale-faced spectre. Overall though the story and feel here is entirely different.
The plot of the movie is inspired by a Jongeon dynasty era (14th-19th Century) Korean folk tale “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon” which has been adapted for the screen five times before this was made although those were direct adaptations which this feature is not. Director Kim-Jee Woon using that tale as the basis of the plot before leaping off in his own direction. A direction which curiously mixes psychological thriller, supernatural horror, and family melodrama.
Like the previous Asian horror entries, this film moves at its own pace, in no rush to speed to its denouement. Unlike the J-horror entries discussed there is more familiarity here for a western audience. There are a few examples of this one of which is the fairy tale trope of the evil stepmother (even if this not quite what it first appears, more of which later). Also, there is a distinct Hitchcockian flavour to proceedings.
The central focus of the tale is the eponymous two sisters Soo Mi (Lim Soo-Jung) and Su-Yeun (Moon Geun-Young) who are settling in again to their family home with their father Moo-Hyeon (Kim Kap-Soo) and stepmother Eun-Yoo (Yun Jung-ah). From the off it is unclear what is going on as the story open with Soo Mi in a mental hospital so when it cuts to the sisters arriving at the family home the viewer is left unsure whether she is coming back from that mental hospital or the tale is being told in flashback. The only any genre-savvy audience will be aware of is that we cannot fully trust what we see as we are viewing what is happening via Soo-Mi, who is cut in the archetypal unreliable narrator. At this point, some of you may be rolling your eyes. Yes, it would be to the say the unreliable narrator is an overused trope but it can still be effective when used well, and here it is.
Genre-savvy audiences will also sense that there will be a twist in this tale although it is a fair bet most will not guess it (kudos to anyone who does). Coincidentally the twist here and the twist in “Switchblade Romance” are similar as both involve characters with a dissociative identity disorder who are menaced by characters who turn out to be themselves. In this case, it is the version of the stepmother Eun-Yoo we have seen for most of the movie who turns not to be real, but a manifestation of Soo-Mi’s disorder and she has been switching between personalities throughout hurting herself. That is not the only twist though as we also realise that Soo-Mi has been hallucinating Su-Yeun all this time, unable to accept her death. If that was not enough, we also get a bit of another twist about the stepmother too, the real one that is. No wonder many viewers were left confused.
In all fairness, though these twists do not open up the same sort of plot holes, it does in “Switchblade Romance.” Also, the reveal does not affect the re-watch value in quite the same way as it does with that film. As the twist is cleverly seeded throughout and there is much fun to be had in spotting the clues to the reality here that you might miss upon first viewing of the movie such as the shifts in colour scheme which suggests we are moving between Soo-Mi’s reality and actual reality. Finally, while this use of mental illness as a narrative device is naturally problematic, there is obvious care been put into making Soo-Mi seem like a believable and empathetic character which means it never feels as cheap and hackneyed as it does in many films that employ similar twists.
As much as I have discussed the twist, unlike some films with a big plot reveal at the end, this movie is much more than its twist. First, off it is a beautiful film to look, and this look and design play off wonderfully with the gothic melodrama atmosphere which Kim-Jee Woon tries to and succeeds in creating.
Also, while for a horror movie the scares are relatively scarce each of the horror sequences is meticulously constructed and hits home when they do come along. The film also features one of horror’s great weird dinners which as discussed in the “28 Days Later” is a surprisingly common trope. It is in this dinner sequence that Yun Jung-ah as the imagined evil stepmother comes into her own, dialling it up to 11, all maniacal laughter and glaring eyes. The scene builds wonderfully starting as merely an awkward dinner with an over-enthusiastic hostess and then slowly cranking up to one pure hysteria and terror. Amongst several great scenes, it is the stand-out scene of the movie.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” ended being a big hit upon release becoming the first Korean horror cross-over hit as well as the biggest Korean horror of all time. In his next couple of films, Kim-Jee Woon would move away from the horror genre, but he did return to the genre for the outstanding “I Saw the Devil.” A horror movie which would easily rank as one of the best of horrors of the last decade which made the decision on which of them to include incredibly difficult with this only winning out by the narrowest of margins.
Inevitably the movie got a US remake confusingly called “The Uninvited” (2009). I say confusingly as you may assume it is a remake of that other 2003 South Korean horror film actually called “The Uninvited” or for that matter any of the several other movies with that same title. Despite a reasonable cast including the likes of David Strathairn and Elizabeth Banks typically the Hollywood remake could not hold a candle to the original and received lukewarm reviews. Thankfully it has been largely forgotten while the original remains a stellar entry in the 21st Century horror canon.
Even now if you ask people to name a Japanese horror film, if they know any at all, the most likely answer you would get is either this film or Ringu. Both of which were the most popular films of the early 00s J-Horror craze. Not that necessarily makes this film one of the best as many would consider Ju-on: The Grudge to be weaker than some other such as Ringu or Pulse (Kairo) for example. While that maybe there are still many memorable and you can certainly see the films appeal.
The curious thing about Ju-on: The Grudge is that this is actually the third entry in a long-running franchise created by director Takashi Shimizu which is still going to this day and was also the first in the franchise to get a cinematic release. You may assume that you when need to see the first two entries (Ju-on: The Curse and Ju-on: The Curse 2) to view this one, but you do not necessarily. As all of the films work both as part of the franchise and as individual films. The connecting factor being the haunted house of the deceased Saeki family. According to the film's mythology, a curse was created after Takeo Saeki (Takashi Matsuyama) murdered his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji), son Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) and the family cat in a jealous rage after finding out Kayako had a crush on another man. This curse follows anybody who enters the house and also turned Kayako into a vengeful spirit and the franchise's central antagonist.
Like all of the films in the Ju-on series Ju-on: The Grudge does not have a plot per se but is instead told in a series of loosely connected vignettes. Confusing matters further, these vignettes do not unfold in chronological order, so you always have to think where you are in the narrative timeline. In the first of these vignettes, we follow Rika (Megumi Okina) as she is sent to Saeki house as a carer for a senior woman. Rika, as it turns out, is the films nominal lead as she appears in more than one of the vignettes unlike most of the other characters.
Each of the vignettes run in roughly the same order with characters ending up in the cursed house for one reason or other, the curse then following with the back home or at work or whatever and then spreading to other characters they encounter before being bumped off by Kayako’s spirit. All of which makes the film sound very formulaic and a bit boring. The former is true as Shimizu has created a blueprint for these films and is very much sticking. The latter, however, is not there is plenty here to hold your attention as there is plenty of tension here to keep you hooked into the story and Shimizu maintains a profoundly creepy atmosphere throughout proceedings.
Arguably the scares have lost some of their initial power as audiences are more familiar with the chalk-faced, twitchy, clicky ghosts that populate many a J-Horror but there is still stuff to get under your skin on the evidence here. Notably in scenes such as the one where Kayako come spider-like out a room and stalks one of the characters down the stairs in the old Saeko home or the scene where you see another set of hands in the back of Rika’s head when she is showering. Also the horrendous croaking noise Kayako is just as unsettling now as when the film was released.
Not all the jumps work, and some of the fake-out (generally cat-based) scares are more funny than scary, but the horror set-ups along with the atmosphere are where the movie, and by extension, the franchise is at its strongest. As discussed there are plenty of weaknesses too as well as the ones already mentioned it would be fair to say there is little in the way of character development and the acting is of variable quality. The movie is also guilty of the Hollywood studio horror thing of laying on the musical cues thick to signpost this is going to be a scary bit, get ready to be scared now!
These were all flaws that critics at the time pounced on, and despite its rather stellar reputation as a horror fan favourite it received decidedly mixed reviews with a current Metacritic score of 48 and an RT score of 64%.
Inevitably for any popular non-English language horror film, there was a remake, just called The Grudge, made in 2004, which is actually the same year Ju-on: The Grudge got its official UK and US release. Unusually the Sarah Michelle Gellar starring remake did not relocate the action to somewhere in the States but is still set in Tokyo. The lack of location was not the only unusual thing about the remake as the director of the remake is none other than Takashi Shimizu. The other curious about the remake is that basically a facsimile of Ju-on: The Grudge with the main difference being the English speaking cast. So if you have seen The Grudge, you have essentially seen this movie.
Shimizu also went to direct a sequel to both this movie and the English language. Confusingly unlike the original and its remake Ju-on: The Grudge 2 and The Grudge 2 have separate storylines although they do follow the same non-linear chapter based. After four Ju-on movies and two American ones, The Grudge movies Shimizu left the franchise but it very much rolled on without him as there was another direct-to-DVD American sequel released in 2009 as well another five entries in the original Japanese series. The last of these entries being 2016’s Sadako vs. Kayako which sees the antagonists of both the Ring and Ju-on franchises face off in a movie that started life as internet joke and was met with a mixed to poor reaction upon release. If you thought that is the end of The Grudge franchise though think again as there is an English language reboot set to hit screens early next month. Proof, if proof were needed, you can never keep a horror franchise down for long.
From comic book films like “Hellboy” to the blockbuster action of “Pacific Rim” to the majestic fantasy of his masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” Guillermo Del Toro has proven himself to be one of the best genre directors of the 21st Century. It was certainly difficult to pick one film for Del Toro for the book as most of his films have some horror element. Yes, even his Academy Award-winning feature “The Shape of Water” has a touch of horror about it even although it is mainly a romantic-fantasy.
Del Toro frequent mixing of genre also makes it difficult to establish which of his films you consider to be horror. From his 21st Century filmography, there is two that stand out as being horror films this film and “Crimson Peak.” Between these two it was easy to pick which one should be included on the list. Your writer here would like to state before continuing that I consider “Crimson Peak” to be nowhere near as bad as many people claim. There is much fun to be had with that films brand of overblown Gothic horror, and performance-wise Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston make for an impressive triumvirate. However, suffice to say it is nowhere near as good as “The Devil’s Backbone.”
Tragic to think then the movie was nearly never made. The reason for this was partly that Del Toro was considering giving up filmmaking after his bruising first Hollywood experience on the Weinstein produced “Mimic.” On that movie, he frequently clashed with Harvey and Bob Weinstein and felt the film had been taken out from under him. The other reason was he could not getting fund for the story in its original form (then set during the Mexican Revolution) which he pitched to the Mexican Film Institute. The film institute rejected it on the grounds it was “too big” of a film. The movie was however saved with the intervention of Pedro Almovodar. Almovodar had admired Del Toro’s work and had passingly said to the director if he ever wanted to make a film in Spain he would produce. In 1997, Del Toro “took a chance and wrote to Pedro and said, ‘Remember that conversation we had?’”.. He did indeed, and the rest as they say is his history.
The change of filming location did not alter the plot too much, but the backdrop of the story did move from being the Mexican Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. The plot focuses on Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy who finds himself at a leftist orphanage following the death of his father. Carlos soon discovers that the orphanage is haunted and hides some dark secrets.
Given a quick synopsis “The Devils Backbone” may seem like a regular ghost story but this is Del Toro we are talking about and as is usual with his films things are not that straightforward. Far from being your regulation haunted house pic, this films mixes horror with drama, coming-of-age and Western elements with John Ford’s “The Searchers” being one of Del Toro’s touchstones during the film. The Western influence is strong throughout with many of the outdoor shots being composed like a Western, and the orphanage itself is made to look like one of those barricaded forts seen in so many Westerns.
Like with many a Del Toro it is not the supposed monster, in this case, the ghost that is the villain here but human cruelty, the cruelest character being Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Even this character though is not without his sympathies. His actions are frequently despicable and grow more so as the film goes so you actively cheer on his demise, but there are also times you can see Jacinto is a man still viciously lashing out against festering childhood wounds. That is one of the critical strengths of the movie all the key players are given psychological depth and believable motivations in a way often missing in mainstream horror.
Jacinto not the ghost child Santi (Andreas Munoz) may be the real threat in the movie, but that does not mean the ghost doesn’t look creepy, far from it. The design of Santi is very creepy indeed with his ashen white complexion (inspired by Sadako in “Ringu”), cracked porcelain-like face and the blood that emanates from a head wound like a mist. There also some eerily atmospheric scenes involving the ghost before we, the audience, realise he does not pose a threat. Particularly in an early scene where Carlos first catches sight of him in lower reaches of the Orphanage building.
As well as the design of the ghost being outstanding the overall design of the movie is equally gorgeous and gothic. The film’s budget was actually only 3-4 million Euros, but from the look of it, you would imagine that the budget was far higher than that which is a testament to both Del Toro as a filmmaker and the skill of his crew.
The design is not the only outstanding element though as there also many great performances here. Notably from Del Toro favourite Federico Lupe as the kindly Professor Casare. Also in fine form is Marissa Paredes as head of the orphanage Carmen, Eduardo Noriega as the aforementioned Jacinto as well as Fernando Tielves who is excellent as the young protagonist Carlos.
Upon release the film was not met with quite the same adulation as its sister picture “Pans Labyrinth“ (Which Del Toro recommends you watch with this film) it was still met overwhelmingly positive reviews and was a modest box office success. As mentioned earlier Del Toro’s career would go from strength to strength from here culminating, of course, in his Oscar win for “The Shape of Water.” However, this film still ranks as one of the visionary filmmakers finest and up until recently was the one that Del Toro himself cited as his favourite amongst his works.