This is true of the horror genre too. Now and then, the scariest films are those with the most direct and unfettered narratives; boasting the least amount of character "soap opera," and featuring almost no reliance on digital creations or other special effects.
Sometimes it's a downright relief to abandon the long-in-the-tooth franchise monsters with their elaborate histories and canon, the vengeful Japanese ghouls with their labyrinthine back stories and technological trappings, or the post-modern pretensions, allusions and homages of the post-Scream slasher-set.
The French shocker, Them (2007), seems to take that hint, and it's a breath of fresh -- and intoxicating -- air. The film is simple and elegant... and it will terrify you to your core.
This film from directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud is a streamlined, throat-tightening exercise in pure suspense; essentially a sustained 75-minute siege and chase. The terror escalates to a frenzy...and that frenzy is masterfully sustained and honed right through the denouement and a revelatory, perfectly-executed pull-back.
Them is the tale of beautiful Clementine (Olivia Bonamy), a French instructor who has recently moved to Bucharest, Romania...where she teaches at the French Junior High School. "I need some time to adjust," she informs a co-worker early on, revealing she's only been away from France for three months and still having difficulties.
And her young wards, who buzz about the hallways madly to the tune of school bells? "They were irritating today," Clementine complains, happy that the weekend -- and a respite -- has come. She drives home (in a series of high-angle, long shots...) to a dilapidated and vast country estate, where her lover, Lucas (Michael Cohen) -- a writer -- welcomes her. They spend a happy night at home until approximately 3:45 am, when both Lucas and Clementine are awakened from their slumber by strange and disturbing noises outside.
Before their eyes, Clementine's car is stolen...driven right off the premises. And then, a gaggle of mysterious assailants (in hooded sweatshirts) invade the house and begin playing chilling games: flipping on and off the television, turning on the water spigot in the bathroom faucet, and so forth.
It isn't long before these pranks escalate, turning into a full-scale assault on the house and its occupants. Lucas is hobbled during the first assault by a shard of glass, leaving Clementine to seek an escape route for them through the colossal attic...
To describe additional details would do this thrilling horror film a disservice, but suffice it to say that by Them's climax (set in a dark, subterranean tunnel system...) you'll feel yourself gasping for air, and clawing to escape right alongside the beleaguered protagonists.
Them's visual style is distinctive and effective, a not-too-unsteady-cam approach that simultaneously telegraphs vulnerability and immediacy. The film makes strong use of atypical illumination sources:: car headlights, flashlights, and the glare of the television, for example. Often, these are the only light sources in scenes, granting the film a dark, earthy, cinema-verite texture. One elaborate scare sequence set in the expansive attic -- involving plastic sheets and a high hatch-way on the wall chillingly recalls a moment from Argento's Suspiria, but not in an overly derivative way.
Them's final sequence, a race and pursuit through the aforementioned tunnel system, is brilliantly-staged too. I haven't felt such unbridled terror rising in my throat since the closing minutes of The Blair Witch Project (1999). It's that sense of total immersion, identification and nail-biting uncertainty. You're in the dark (where a string of hanging light-bulbs only seem to operate intermittently...), alone, and you don't know what to expect around the next corner.
But somewhere, up ahead, you loved one is screaming bloody murder...
Straightforward and spare (and even adopting the "based on a true story" title card we also saw in last year's exquisite The Strangers), Them also serves as a fascinating reflection of French culture and the times. One reviewer, for instance, viewed the film as a response to France's admission into the European Union and the fear of "barbaric" Romanians. Corry Cropper and Marc Olivier write (in Lingua Romana): "The film emphasizes the technological and cultural backwardness of Romania: phones are unreliable, television programming is poor and in black and white, the police force is unresponsive and the food is bad. Like the house Lucas and Clémentine live in, Romania is dilapidated and in serious need of repair."
I wonder too if the film doesn't concern, to some extent, the social/civil unrest in France circa 2005-2006. As you may recall, riots broke out in the streets -- across the country -- after a handful youngsters were killed in a power plant while evading police pursuit. The riots involved the burning and destruction of automobiles -- and cars certainly play an important part in the action of Them (as do...youngsters.) The riots were later blamed by some on France's large Muslim population and so the sub-text here seems to concernFrench uneasiness about cultural assimilation; aand bout their role of reduced importance in the world: both in Romania, perhaps, and at home.
In the end, such interpretation is interesting but unimportant to an enjoyment of the film. Them boasts a simple and admirable agenda: to scare you to death. By and large - mission accomplished.
Them starts strong (with a carefully-crafted gag involving the open hood of a car) and it doesn't relent (even a little...) until that final revelatory pull-back and retraction; the last word, perhaps in symbolizing visual entrapment. The film's coda, which exposes the true nature of the killers (and explains the strange "clicking" sound that marks their presence...) is a genius twist...one that will inspire in audiences either outrage, outright admiration, or macabre laughter.
Maybe all three at once, actually.