The Film: Them (Ils) (2006)
The Principles: David Moreau (writer/director), Xavier Palud (writer/director), Olivia Bonamy, Michael Cohen
The Premise: Clementine (Bonamy) and Lucas (Cohen) just want to have a nice relaxing weekend at their vacation house in the woods outside of Bucharest. Unfortunately a group of unwelcome visitors have other plans.
Is it good? It is! France was on a roll from around 2003-2008, as the New French Extremity movement was reinvigorating the gruesome side of the horror spectrum with such gore fests as Inside, Martyrs, Frontiere(s), and High Tension. In Them, Moreau and Palud go the opposite route, serving up a brief but effective exercise in the less-is-more approach that makes for a solid entry in the home-invasion subgenre. Them is a relatively bloodless affair, relying on sound, atmosphere, and the imagination of the audience to create a sense of dread.
I mentioned the film being brief; clocking in at about 75 minutes, Them is essentially without a second act. If anything, it resembles a stretched out short film. We begin with a mother and daughter traveling home on a dark road in the woods. Their car breaks down, naturally, and they are dispatched of by a group of, well, we don’t know what quite yet. Cut to a school in Bucharest, where we meet French teacher Clementine, who has just finished for the week and is heading off to a country home she shares with Lucas. Our poor leads can’t even enjoy one night without being awakened by strange noises. What follows is 50 minutes of nonstop terrorizing via night-bumping, punctuated by a slightly-too-long subterranean chase sequence.
Normally this is where I would criticize Them for its utter disregard for things like plot and character development. “If I cared about the characters it would be much more effective,” we all say. But the home invasion genre is a rare one in which such things can sometimes be superfluous. Few things are more terrifying on a personal level then the idea of unknown individuals violating the safety of our homes at random. Leaving the characters as simply ciphers upon whom we can easily project ourselves may not be lazy writing so much as a way to maximize the fear felt by the viewer. Eliciting sympathy is not a concern here.
Or perhaps I’m completely full of shit, and Moreau and Palud threw narrative to the wayside because it would have gotten in the way of all the ringing phones, flashing lights, and loud noises. That sounds like I’m trashing the film, but I promise I’m not. The sound design, matched with great atmosphere (thanks to the solid camerawork and haunting ambience of pastoral Romania) provides plenty of terror, and the reveal of the attackers’ identities (which seems to be slightly polarizing among viewers) is both unexpected and surprisingly unnerving. Everything is amplified by the complete lack of score; there are stretches of silence in Them that ratchet up the tension to an almost unbearable degree. Bonamy and Cohen, our endearing nonentities, scream and do the wide-eyed look of terror as well as one could ask. I rarely expect to actually be scared when I sit down to watch a horror film anymore, but, regardless of a paper-thin plot and a dearth of character development, Them certainly succeeded in creeping me out for an hour.
Is it worth a look? Horror fans in search of gore will be disappointed, and if you absolutely cannot stand jump-scares, you may want to skip this one. Otherwise, Them is definitely worth 75 minutes of your time.
Random anecdotes: Bonamy wasn’t acting as she screamed in terror during the chase through the tunnels; she is severely claustrophobic.
Them is supposedly based on the true story of an Austrian couple who visited an estate in Romania.
Cinematic soulmates: The Strangers, Black Christmas, Paranormal Activity