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'Two Sisters' truly frightens, without the gore

There's a reason why Hollywood has been so busy in recent years remaking Asian horror movies. Scare for scare, they're generally better, relying more on things-that-go-bump-in-the-night suspense than the blood-splattered gorefests that overwhelm so many contemporary American films.

Kim Jee-woon's ''A Tale of Two Sisters" falls squarely in the former category as a psychological thriller that borrows and expands on the classic elements of Gothic horror. There's a big, old house that looks menacing even in brilliant sunshine, the kind of foreboding place where doors creak, floorboards ooze blood, and even a whistling kettle is cause for heart-stopping alarm.

Based on a Korean folk tale, the story begins as two teenage girls, Su-mi (Im Su-jeong) and Su-yeon (Mun Geun-yeong) return home to live with their clueless father (Kim Gab-su) and Eun-joo, their tightly wound wack job of a stepmother, played with manic ferocity by Yeom Jeong-a. Where the girls have been is a mystery, and though their stepmother seems happy to see them, there's something decidedly off-putting about her over-the-top, near-hysterical greeting.

As anyone familiar with ''Ringu" and ''Ju-on" already knows, Asian horror films tend to take their time, and can be as confusing as they are compelling. Still, this allows the audience to figure things out along with the characters. In ''Two Sisters," much of the tension comes from the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the strong-willed Su-mi and her stepmother, who abuses the weaker Su-yeon. As this demanding woman comes to take their dead mother's place, a rivalry grows between Su-mi and her stepmother over their father/husband's attention.

At the same time, Su-mi is tortured by nightmares, and experiences unexplainable moments even when she's awake. Looking through old family photos, Su-mi is dismayed to find the image of Eun-joo near her dead mother, and there are more than a few ghouls with lank black hair -- a now-familiar figure in Asian horror films -- moving in and out of the shadows.

As in ''Ju-on," something terrible has happened in this home, and angry spirits cannot rest until they have their revenge. In one of the most disturbing scenes, a guest at a remarkably uncomfortable dinner party goes into wracking convulsions, and sees something horrifying lurking beneath a sink. All of this unfolds with a stifling creepiness. Unlike in American horror films, nothing here is leavened with humor or lighter moments. From the opening image of Su-mi being visited in a stark white room by a doctor (much of the movie is told in flashbacks) through the unsettling conclusion, which may leave more than a few viewers perplexed, Kim sustains the suspenseful mood. Everything here is designed to freak you out.

That Kim pulls this off without grossing us out speaks to his strengths as a filmmaker. It's also something of a surprise coming from a director best known for the poignant slapstick comedy ''The Foul King" and the uneven pitch-black comedy-with-a-body-count ''The Quiet Family."

As much a searing meditation on the bottomless depths of grief as a horror story, ''A Tale of Two Sisters" reminds that few things are as terrifying as our own imaginations.

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