They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. They also say that mimicry is just plain rude. And plagiarism by any other name is still stealing. In the realm of cinema, however, the occasional "borrowing" of ideas has been as much a part of the medium as celluloid. From the groundbreaking work during the silents to the amazing auteurs that literally rewrote the rulebook, the reference or homage has been an acceptable means of bowing to your past while profiting from your present. Certainly, some filmmakers take it too far (Brian DePalma, Quentin Tarantino) while others can balance their respect with reinvention to make the tribute flow freely and easily within their film.
Of course, there will always be those for whom a quick buck and a lack of originality will fuel their filching. Many of the horror films of the last 50 years are retreads of terror tidings that came before. No zombie movie is really original, and unless you count turning Dracula into a dreary romantic icon, vampires are more or less the same as they've always been. Even in the recently discovered realm of Asian horror, a certain sameness has crept into the crypt. Let's face it - spooky girls with long black hair and vacant eyes are getting kind of redundant. How many different ways can we be forced to witness the same post-modern poltergeists? Well, if you're director Thiwa Meyathaisong, you go the good old-fashioned exploitation route. For his film, The Sisters (actually called Pee chong air in Thailand, which translates as Air-Conditioning Duct Ghost), this savvy stealer borrows heavily from all the J,C, and K horror that came before it, and then, just for good measure, gooses the whole genre in excess and extremes. The result is the Asian equivalent of a drive-in delight, a movie that may seem similar, but manages to stand out on its own.
A group of rock musicians - five boys and one girl - arrive in Bangkok for a concert. They wind up staying in a strange hotel room where eerie things begin to occur. When it starts to get hot in the room, they remove the ceiling, vent. Each person who looks up into the duct suddenly flees. Turns out that they all see the "ghost" of a prostitute that was brutally beaten and killed in that room. She was even decapitated, and the police found her head in the air conditioning system. Naturally, everyone is now cursed, as the black-haired specter is filled with untapped rage and is out to kill them one by one.
A few of the group meet grizzly ends. When they finally realize they're in trouble, the remaining kids go to a Buddhist temple. There, a monk informs them that there is only one way to remove the curse. The band has to find the coffins of people who have also died incredibly violent deaths, and sleep in them as part of a strange ritual. The kids search for coffins. They also go back to the haunted hotel room and find some letters. They decide to hunt down the addressee, in hopes that by locating the source of the trauma, the spirit will finally rest...and leave them alone.
The Sisters is to Ju-On and Ringu what Beyond the Door and Abby were to The Exorcist. Actually, that's not very fair. While something like Door's spaghetti Satanism has its moments, The Sisters actually succeeds a lot better than the rest of the "demonic Asian girl" genre that came before it. The Grudge was all suggestion and subtlety, with only occasional appearances by our dark-haired denizen of Hell, The Sisters drags this green-faced fiend with the evil eyes and ink black tresses out into the open every ten minutes. This unearthly bitch means business, and she's not about to let her chance at creature feature stardom pass her by. The Sisters plays like a primer on Asian horror hyper-activated and revved up for maximum fright fuel power. Though it employs a standard kids vs. creepers ideal, it manages to make the redundancy work for, not against it. Besides director Thiwa Meyathaisong, in only his second film, finds the proper balance between invention and cribbing to create something that, while not wholly original, at least bests those that came before.
It should be said that this filmmaker is not only interested in his Eastern counterparts. The Sisters has obvious nods to Italian horror (especially a certain Mr. Argento) and some of the same narrative gimmickry that's all the rage in Independent moviemaking (the majority of the movie is told in flashback). There is a lot of visual flair here since Moeithaisong enjoys moving the camera up and through odd angles to capture the action and a nice building of suspense. During the first few minutes of the movie, when we aren't sure why everyone is reacting so oddly to a mere hole in the ceiling, Moeithaisong designs his shots to constantly push the envelope of angst. He keeps his secrets secure while letting hints of the horrible fate awaiting everyone seep through.
Sure, the near naked ghost kid concept (yes, we have one of those here as well, along with some VERY familiar sound effects) has worn out its welcome...and it wasn't that creepy to begin with. But at least The Sisters uses it far more effectively. This undead child is actually evil, doing much more than looking wide-eyed and making animal noises. We also get a nice revamp of the church as sanctuary ideal and an interesting "cure" for the curse. Indeed, in many ways, The Sisters is far more original in how it presents its spook show than many of the movies that will claim copycat rights.
But what it really excels at is USING these ideas. Perhaps the most unsatisfying thing about the recent Asian horror fad is the underdevelopment of its spooks. True, a pissed off pre-teen with coiffure issues may not be the height of terror, but when all you do is have her crawl around and stare a lot, you're just as guilty of scuttling the fright and fear. Meyathaisong makes his ghost pro-active, kicking karmic butt and taking paranormal names. This ghoul gal has got an agenda and we are happy to go along for the mystical remuneration.
The Sisters is a lot like a slasher film in this regard. The entire motion picture is a kind of ethereal 'search and destroy'. Our She-specter finds a weakening member of the rock group, throws some mean mojo their way, they go bonkers and a nice gruesome death results. Unlike its other Eastern eerie cousins, this movie loves the look of blood. We get pools of it, bodies covered in it, and wounds seeping with it. Meyathaisong lets us see the gore, not just hinting at it for the sake of a rating. Unfortunately, gorehounds will find this all a bit tame, but for those who thought the jawless spirit in The Grudge was great, you'll find some similar sinew here.
Of course, The Sisters is not a perfect film. It doesn't have the fastidious control of its influential predecessors, and it can't quite keep itself straight on what's more important - the ghost story, or the ghost's backstory. We occasionally find the film circumventing its purpose to pile on the pity, and the occasional lapse into monochrome (to tell us the story of the prostitute's last "trick") is also kind of tacky. In addition, the methodical way Meyathaisong gets rid of the characters is disaffecting. We would love for the deaths to be more spontaneous and not so outwardly telegraphed. Yet taken in total, the good far outweighs the weak, and we end up with a treat that, while not exactly spine-tingling, has more than enough fear factors to disturb your sleep.
One can't help feel that The Sisters is the Asian ghost story finally done right. It has energy and vitality, it has dialogue and personal interaction. Maybe this has something to do with the DVD cover art that states the story was based on true events "that shocked the entire country of Thailand". Reality does have some of the authenticity and randomness that this movie displays. Certainly the excess of poltergeist makes for a winning formula. Why save your star until the very end - it's far more fun to see "her" messing around with the victims instead of implying and inferring everything. Yet it is the anarchic skill of director Thiwa Meyathaisong, his desire to simply swipe Ju-On's ideas and go for broke, that really sells this film. The Sisters certainly takes its references to ghoul school in how it treats its terror.
As part of their Tokyo Shock series, Media Blasters releases The Sisters in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that's highly reminiscent of the direct-to-video films of the mid-80s. There are lots of garish lighting problems, framing issues, some wonderfully effective night scenes and occasional darkness-driven grain. The colors are complex and correct, while the details and contrasts are superb. Along with the excellent atmosphere and mood in Thiwa Meyathaisong's camerawork, this is a wonderful looking film.
For some reason, Media Blasters has opted to offer an English dub of The Sisters, and even in Dolby Digital Stereo, it's still stupid, loud and distracting. Nothing is more irritating than the Western voice over ideal of screaming lines and over-emphasizing emotion in an attempt to add heft to the soundtrack. The differences are obvious once you witness the original Thai track. All the subtlety and substance lacking in the English version is present here. And since the subtitles do a great job of keeping the conversation clear, there is no reason to bother with the buffoonery offered on the weak dub effort.
Sadly, this Media Blasters release is as bare bones as an old Paramount release. Aside from a trailer, there are no other featurettes or contextual material. The menu is nicely animated with the ghost's hair flapping in the wind, and the packaging is ornate, with a sturdy cardboard box holding the Amray case. However, a film this much fun - and this obscure - deserves a better digital presentation than what we are given here.
Sure, The Sisters is something we've all seen before. There is nothing new in a group of teens being pursued by a killer apparition, and when you add in the J/C/K horror angle, the derivation becomes even more direct. Still, director Thiwa Meyathaisong deserves credit for what he's accomplished, even if it's a lot like what Roger Corman and AIP pictures did throughout the 50s and 60s. This is an eerie, disturbing movie macabre that uses its obvious borrowing to great effect - and there's even some originality here, just for good measure. If you want to see The Grudge on steroids, or The Ring with real spook spunk, check out this Thai treat. It just goes to prove that not every homage is horrid. Sometimes, those doing the borrowing know the exact amount of mimicry needed to succeed. That is definitely the case with this crafty little creepfest.
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