Sometimes you walk out of a festival movie and wonder precisely WHY it was afforded a slot in the first place. Not because the movie's a rotten piece of junk, but because it's just kinda ... there. Standard, familiar, predictable, meh. And certainly nothing you'd expect to find at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. But then I remembered that Ernie Barbarash's They Wait is a Canadian-produced thriller -- and also that the Toronto Film Festival does like to spread a little love to the local guys.
So that explains why a perfectly watchable but in no way superior little chiller like They Wait earns a spot. Last year it was the surprisingly effective End of the Line, and this year it's the dry but half-decent They Wait. Anyway, here's the plot: Jaime King and Terry Chen are a married couple with a young son named Sammy. They're required to travel from Shanghai to Canada to attend the funeral of a beloved uncle, but poor little Sammy stumbles across an ancient (undead) secret that you'll be able to figure out less than 45 seconds after the plot threads are introduced. It's like "J-Horror Lite," if that works as any sort of selling point.
That's not to say there's not a few mild chills and meager surprises to be found. Ms. King delivers a surprisingly strong lead performance, plus there's always something to be said for a movie in which Michael Biehn pops by to deliver some vague exposition and obvious clues before vanishing again. At least the flick benefits from some unique cultural mixtures. It's not too often you see a ghost thriller that takes place in a Canadian Chinatown locale.
Once the resoundingly 'campfire' story is established, we're subjected to a long, dry and rather circuitous stretch while the characters catch up to the rest of us. So while the premise and the set-up are firmly Twilight Zone-y, the follow-through feels like a cable flick and the payoff is only moderately satisfying. (In other words, the whole affair is average at best. Definitely not terrible, but even more definitely not scintillating.) Points are due to Barbarash and company for trying to mount a straight-faced thriller that's not obsessed with simplistic shocks and pointless gore, but for all its quality assets and honorable intentions, They Wait is simply another example of "been there, done that."
As far as the spooky stuff goes, They Wait will seem a lot more comfortable once it finds a home on cable television. Barbarash and his screenwriters do offer a few creepy concepts (without spoiling anything, the freaky stuff centers on sweat-shops, murder, and a whole lot of old corpses that reside in the wrong place), but the delivery is just a little too dry and pedantic to get all that excited about. As a slow-night time-waster for the horror fanatics, sure. But don't expect much more than that.