With Hollywood still churning out shot for shot remakes of Asian horror films, the generically titled “They Wait” comes as an interesting proposition, being a Western genre outing which attempts to actually integrate and draw upon Eastern motifs rather than simply throwing them together in the usual slapdash manner. As such, it is fitting that the film is a genuine East meets West affair, with an impressive cast which features Jamie King (currently on screens in the “My Bloody Valentine” remake), former Shaw Brothers sword queen Cheng Pei Pei (star of countless classics including “Come Drink With Me” and “The Lady Hermit”), and Michael Biehn in a cameo role. Although the presence of the notorious Dr. Uwe Boll as producer might be cause for alarm, the film was actually directed by Ernie Barbarash, who has a decent pedigree in genre sequel making, having helmed “Stir of Echoes 2” and “Cube Zero”.
The film opens with an elderly Chinese man being killed by an unseen creature whilst hunting in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. His death brings his nephew Jason (played by Terry Chen, recently in the Jet Li starring “War”) and his family back from Shanghai for the funeral. Unfortunately, his wife Sarah (King) soon finds herself in trouble as their young son Sam starts seeing ghosts before mysteriously falling ill. When Western medicine fails to find an explanation, she turns to a wise, platitude spouting Chinese pharmacist, who gravely informs her that the poor child has fallen victim to an evil spirit. As usual, this results in the investigation of skeletons in the family closet, in this case seeming revolving around Jason’s rather brusque Aunt Mei – though of course, as any Hong Kong horror fan will know, the fact that the film takes place during the always creepy Hungry Ghost Month probably has a lot to do with the supernatural goings on.
What helps set “They Wait” apart from the hordes of Hollywood Asian horror remakes and rip-offs is the fact that director Barbarash makes a genuine effort to give the proceedings a cross culture feel. Certainly, the film does not simply exploit Chinese ghost lore or play it for cheap exoticism, instead focusing on issues of language and belief, exploring the lives of immigrants and difficulties faced when two very different cultures meet. Although this doesn’t always quite hang together, for example in the case of a subplot involving wronged bear spirits, which tends to jump in and out of the script rather confusingly, it does give the film a certain amount of depth, and even a rare sense of authenticity.
As well as winning kudos points, this also helps to distract from the basic over familiarity of the plot, which draws upon almost every narrative cliché of the form – even going so far as to feature not one but two aging figures who appear solely to provide exposition, not to mention the expected last act slew of explanatory flashbacks which turn up exactly on cue. To be fair, the story is efficiently told, and for the most part manages to engage, though the only real tension comes from waiting to see how long it takes the painfully slow on the uptake heroine to realise that the evil female ghost is unlikely to leave her alone until she resolves the mystery surrounding her death and lays her missing bones to rest.
In general, Barbarash aims for slow burn atmosphere and creepy chills, and for the most part succeeds, with the film enjoying a certain ominous air that draws the viewer into its shadowy world. At the same time, he throws in a number of cheap scares, including such favourites as ghosts suddenly appearing, weird visions and so on. Still, these help to keep things moving along throughout the short running time, and do add some basic entertainment value. Barbarash’s direction is fine, being workmanlike though pleasingly economic, with the good production values giving things a considerable boost.
Although unlikely to give viewers any sleepless nights, “They Wait” is an above average genre offering, and is certainly one of the better Western takes on Eastern ghost lore. Benefiting from a measured approach to cultural differences, it makes far better use of the familiarities of the form than other similarly themed efforts.
Ernie Barbarash (director) / Trevor Markwart, Carl Bessai, Doug Taylor (screenplay)
CAST: Jaime King … Sarah
Terry Chen … Jason
Pei-pei Cheng … Aunt Mei
Henry O … Pharmacist
Regan Oey … Sam
Colin Foo … Raymond
Chang Tseng … Xiang
Michael Biehn … Blake