Make no bones about it
Is Canada such a wasteland when it comes to horror? There's Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974), which preceded John Carpenter's better-known (though not necessarily superior) Halloween by about four years. There are the endless slasher imitations that followed Clark's cult classic, including the Prom Night movies and J. Lee Thompson's Happy Birthday to Me (1981)--no fine example of the genre, the picture does include one memorable scene, of guests attending a girl's birthday party sporting the various weapons with which they were murdered. There's David Cronenberg in a category all his own, with examples of everything from gynecological horror (Shivers (1975); Rabid (1977); Dead Ringers (1988)) to cerebral (Videodrome (1983)--arguably his masterpiece; eXistenZ (1999)) to the everyday, kitchen-sink variety (Spider (2002); A History of Violence (2005); Eastern Promises (2007)). Then there's Guy Madden's Dracula: Pages from A Virgin's Diary (2002)--far too beautiful to be considered straight horror, plus Mark Holcomb in a Senses of Cinema article has suggested that the imagery may have been inspired by Gerardo de Leon's Kulay Dugo ang Gabi (Blood is the Color of Night, 1964).
So I ask again: is Canada such a wasteland for horror? Is it possible that underneath the façade of breathtakingly beautiful natural landscapes all one will find is more breathtakingly beautiful natural landscapes? I wouldn't know; I'd be glad to learn that I'm totally wrong.
That said, Ernie Barbarash's They Wait (2007) is perhaps not the movie that'll change my mind. Basically an "abducted child" thriller, the movie may ground itself firmly in Chinese mythology, particularly those involving the "hungry ghost" month--the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar--but the thrills are mostly borrowed from Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) by way of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2003), with a fistful of Nakata's Dark Water (2000) thrown into the bargain.
Kudos to the filmmakers for actually taking the pains to foreground Chinese folklore in this--not only ghosts but illegal immigrants, sweatshops, burial practices, especially with regards to bones (one character is actually referred to as a "bone collector," or someone who encases the decease's bones in a box, for later delivery back to the homeland). And not just cultural but visual details--the look of the bone box, the intricately tabletop illustration of a human skeleton over which the real bones are laid out (presumably a guide as to what belong where, to ensure that all bones are accounted for), the black die coating the child's arm up to his elbows.
That last bit is easily the most unsettling detail in the film, the kind of distinct twist one might find in a supernatural drama steeped in a culture's actual folklore. Sarah (Jaime King) finds her son Sam (Regan Oey) unconscious, his arms somehow dyed black. They are staying with Aunt Mei (Cheng Pei-Pei), whose husband Raymond (Colin Foo) had been killed in the forest by an unknown assailant--in this month of hungry ghosts, spirits are allowed to wander the world of men, tempting them, frightening them, sometimes even possessing their corporeal selves, to carry out unfinished business (presumably Uncle Raymond was involved in some unfinished business that ended badly). In Sam's case, a young woman has taken his soul, and refuses to release it until her mission is complete--what that mission is and how to accomplish it is for the spirit to know, for Sarah to find out (not fair, I know). Various noisy digital effects later, Sarah is injecting herself with a poison to enable her to enter the spirit world, said action causing the medical staff to think she's lost her marbles and strap her to a hospital bed.
If I'm not on my feet applauding--if my affection for the picture is more guarded than enthusiastic, that's because I feel the movie has a split personality. On one hand there's the scrupulously researched and presented supernatural folklore; on the other hand, the ghosts themselves are introduced and presented with the understated subtlety of a bad Hollywood remake, all loud clanging and inane shrieking. It's been a pet theory of mine that half a horror film's actual power comes from the soundtrack, from the timing and amount of noise/alleged music generated when something scary is supposed to be happening--the less generated, the better. The soundtrack of this one feels especially like reheated leftovers from that stupid Ringu remake Gore Verbinski foisted on the general public seven years ago (the sequel, directed by Nakata himself is much better--is in fact quite underrated). If the filmmakers actually took the time and effort to supply the picture with an authentic and unique-looking cultural milieu you'd think they'd adopt a unique-looking (and sounding) audiovisual style to accompany said milieu (here's a hint: less clanking, less shrieking, less overall hysteria would help).
The cast is generally unmemorable, save for Cheng Pei-Pei, best known for her starring role in King Hu's great Da zui xia (Come Drink With Me, 1966), and for being the rare bright spot in Ang Lee's otherwise soporific Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Cheng creates unrealistic expectations, of elegantly shot and edited images, of strong women with tremendous martial arts skills, expectations that are ultimately left unfulfilled by this picture. To be fair, she does get to wield a meat cleaver (albeit as a younger woman, in flashback), and she does meet with a suitably gruesome end. Small blessings in a disappointingly small-minded movie.
First published on Businessworld, 4.3.09