This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
After a pretty strong opening to the decade, 2003 is an oddly weak year for the genre, especially in terms of American output—there just aren’t many notable U.S. films here at all, but thankfully the international horror movies pick up the slack. It continues to be a prolific era for Japanese horror films, with such entries as Gozu and 2LDK, but they’re by no means the only Asian nation producing notable genre movies at this point—look no further than this year’s #1, A Tale of Two Sisters from South Korea.
Of the international offerings, one of the most notable, interesting and ultimately frustrating is France’s High Tension from director Alexandre Aja, a stylish stalk-and-kill horror thriller that features some of the most vicious bloodletting of the decade. A notable entry in the movement dubbed New French Extremity, the film centers around a young woman who visits a friend’s family before a serial killer begins systematically killing everyone around her. It gained infamy both for its over-the-top splatter and a twist ending that sadly strains the credibility of what the story can reasonably rationalize as it tries to explain itself. It feels like a case where it’s not so much the nature of the twist that is problematic, but the inability of the film to make the past events of the story make sense once the twist is revealed. Perhaps, though, with Aja back in genre fans’ good graces after this year’s surprisingly well received Crawl, Haute Tension will be due for a reassessment.
Other notables for the year include one of the most perfect distillations of a simple fear captured for the big screen in the form of Open Water, the start of an up-and-down directorial career for Rob Zombie in House of 1,000 Corpses, the beginning of a long-running series in Wrong Turn and the unnecessary but technically competent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Also worth mentioning: Freddy vs. Jason, which is beyond silly, but a guilty pleasure popcorn flick for fans of both series who always wanted to see a titanic brawl between two of the classic slasher villains. It’s impossible to take seriously, but it gave most audience members exactly what they wanted to see, and you can’t fault it for that.
2003 Honorable Mentions:
Gozu, High Tension, Identity, Open Water, Dead End, Wrong Turn, Freddy vs. Jason, House of 1,000 Corpses, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Film: A Tale of Two Sisters
Director: Jee-woon Kim
The international success of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring not only paved the way for more American remakes of Japanese horror fare (all thrown under the term “J-horror”), it also seemed to embolden production of horror cinema all throughout the rest of Asia’s biggest film markets, seeing the U.S. as a potentially profitable new arena to exploit. That included South Korea, whose output spiked in this period (we called it “K-horror,” because we’re so original). And the most famous of those films was no doubt A Tale of Two Sisters, which in 2003 became the highest-grossing horror film in the country’s history. Drawing upon centuries old Korean folk stories, the film modernizes itself with M. Night Shyamalan-esque psychological plotting and some good-old-fashioned twists.
The titular two sisters are elder Su-mi and younger Su-yeong, over whom Su-mi feels quite protective. As we join the story, the elder sister has just returned from a mental institution, where she had been incarcerated for unknown reasons after some unexplained event threw the family into disarray. Returning to the family’s remote estate in the wilderness, she immediately comes into friction against her overbearing stepmother Eun-joo, and suspects her of abusing Su-yeong. The family patriarch, on the other hand, father Moo-hyeon, seems completely ineffectual and passive, wracked by grief and haunted by the past. He refuses to sleep in the same bed as his wife and consistently withdraws himself from the story, allowing tensions to continue to deepen between Su-mi and Eun-joo, until the threat of violence is far more than just implied.
Some of these relationships must be inferred, rather than simply absorbed as matter of fact. A Tale of Two Sisters is a very patient, glacially paced film that is somewhat ponderous in its opening moments. Unlike American counterparts such as the poorly received 2009 remake The Uninvited, the film does not spoon-feed the audience vital background information, and dialog is often obtuse. Characters have conversations with one another where both sides refuse to address the heart of the mounting tensions in the household, which is purposefully frustrating for the audience—we feel trapped in the middle of a familial dispute in which we don’t have the right to speak up.
Once the household’s disturbances take a turn for the supernatural, however, the timbre of the film changes considerably. Ghosts both real and imagined return to play their part in digging up the family’s buried secrets, and here the film’s slow pace suddenly becomes an asset—there are haunting scenes in A Tale of Two Sisters that draw out individual moments of suspense almost to the point where it becomes unbearable. It’s a distinctly different experience than that of PG-13, American jump scare horror—here, director Kim Jee-woon will simply show you a ghost, and let both you and the character sweat as it takes its time crossing the room to stand atop your bed. Other terrifying moments have their roots in reality, as in the protracted sequence of a dinner guest having a seizure and flopping chaotically on the dining room floor. It invokes a sort of collectivist culture taboo—the ungainly breaking of the extreme social restraint otherwise expected of the characters at all times.
In its closing moments, A Tale of Two Sisters is at its most poignant, blurring the lines between psychological horror and dramatic, Greek-style tragedy in a way that is so unexpectedly effective it’s likely to take an audience completely by surprise. This is the moment the film chooses to use to engender sympathy for characters who didn’t seem to deserve it before, forcing a reevaluation of the entire story that adds considerably more richness to previous interactions. It’s a film for the patient horror viewer, but one that is ultimately rewarding.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.