Richard von Busack of MovieTimes.com and Metroactive.com writes:
Having stripped the poetry out of the Ji-woon Kimâ€™s distinguished 2003 Korean horror film â€œA Tale of Two Sisters,â€ the Yank remake, â€œThe Univitedâ€ (by British directors Charles and Thomas Guard) provides a standard but amusing shock machine. It delivers a couple of genuine spinal-glissandos. The best of these tingles is provided by Maya Massar as a mother who wonâ€™t stay dead; Massar uses the ever-effective trick of moving very slowly and smiling her head off. Why do we fear the dead, when theyâ€™re so nice and so glad to see us? The film is old-fashioned enough to work an imitation Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, to creaking doors, to a flash of an untrustworthy mirror and to a disfigured ghost hissing â€œMurder!â€
In the mental hospital where sheâ€™s recovering from a suicide attempt, Anna (Emily Browning) has a recurring nightmare about her terminally ill mother and the night she perished in a fiery explosion. The details include quivering 35-gallon trash bags full of semidead humans; one figure is a spectral red-haired girl who looks like a shrunken and anemic Tilda Swinton. Annaâ€™s useless psychiatrist calms her by saying, â€œWe survive by remembering, but sometimes we survive by forgetting.â€ That, of course, is the motto of the modern horror filmmaker.
Anna returns home to her fatherâ€™s place on the coast of Maine. Widowed dad Steven (David Strathairn) has taken up with Rachael (Elizabeth Banks), a handsome working-class blonde who got kicked upstairs from nurse to mistress. Rachael was on duty the night Mom went up in flames. Also waiting for Anna is her wilder sister, Alex (Arielle Kebbel); she hasnâ€™t been too distracted by beach parties and boys to watch the situation develop. In her opinion, Rachael â€œhelps Dad cope. Three times a night.â€
As Rachael, the former nurse, Banks turns in another keen performance; she keeps the inflections down and lets the audience pick up on the nuances. â€œMy first order of business is to fatten her up,â€ she says of Anna. Banks says this so coolly that itâ€™s a second or two before the audience remembers Hansel and Gretel.
Browning, who plays the poor haunted girl, is smoothly and vacantly pretty, with large cushiony lips. (Banks gives us a little lesbian shock by applying some lipstick on the girl, a process that takes a moment because thereâ€™s so much surface area to cover.) Unfortunately, Anna doesnâ€™t look like someone who just got out of the mental hospital; she doesnâ€™t smoke, for instance. In the original Korean film, with its old-world, silent family, no one could be trusted. The downcast daughter was isolated from her father. What one misses is the original filmâ€™s simple moment of tragic recognition between the sisters; an effect as simple as an offstage clap of thunder.