Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Films of 2002: Wes Craven Presents They

The umbrella franchise title “Wes Craven Presents” promises a lot, but doesn’t often deliver. I carry great fondness for Wes Craven Presents Wishmaster (1997), for example, a fun rubber-reality horror movie that seems imported directly from the late 1980s era of Hellraiser (1987). 

Contrarily, Wes Craven Presents Carnival of Souls (1998) is one of the worst horror movies I’ve had the misfortune to sit through.

This film -- Wes Craven Presents They -- occupies the middle space between those two poles. It isn’t fun at all, but nor is it a jaw-dropping train-wreck.

Being of more recent vintage, They at least looks good, even if the script and characterizations can’t quite keep pace with the cinematography. Except for the (poorly-rendered and dated) CGI monsters, this Roger Harmon looks of apiece with other genre films from the same time period -- the early 2000s -- including Mothman Prophecies (2002) and The Ring (2002). 

Alas, They is not frightening or effective, like those efforts. It's a bit muddled, actually.

I understand that the film apparently went through extensive testing, re-shooting, and even had an alternate script, at one point, so I suspect such creative disruptions are the cause of the film’s maddening vagueness.  I enjoy a good, ambiguous or mysterious horror film as much as anyone, but there’s no ‘there’ in They. Nothing seems to connect, make sense, or build to any meaningful conclusion.

The idea underlying the film is good, however. Basically, They is all about psychology, and and childhood trauma. Those things that scare us as children, the movie warns, return in adulthood, causing depression, isolation, and even suicide.  Other people can't see or detect these "monsters," but you know they are there, right at the edges of periphery.

That’s not a bad, general template for a horror movie, though not an overly original one, either. They touches adeptly on its core concept -- of childhood monsters coming back -- a few times, but basically functions as a series of not-terribly-effective or intriguing jump scares that lead, finally, to a baffling and unsatisfactory conclusion.

“They come for me when it’s dark.”

One night, a little boy, Billy, begs for his mother to save him from the monsters in his bedroom.  She doesn’t, and something terrifying drags him under his bed.

Twenty years later, Billy (Jon Abrahams) is a depressed, drug-using adult. He calls a friend, Julia Lund (Laura Regan) to a diner to meet with him, and confides in her that the monsters from his childhood have returned.  He recommends she stay in the light, and then commits suicide

After Billy’s death, Julia, and Billy’s friends -- Sam (Ethan Embry) and Terry (Dagmara Dominczyk)  --meet with her, and report that they are also experiencing a return of their childhood night terrors.  

Soon Julia experiences this phenomenon as well, even though her boyfriend, Paul Loomis (Marc Blucas) tries to convince her that she is just experiencing stress related to her school work.

Julia goes back to her childhood therapist, Dr. Booth (Jay Brazeau), to see if she can help uncover the truth about these monsters.  

But when Billy’s friends begin to die, Julia knows he was right; that the monsters have returned...and want to take her away.

“Something that scared us as kids has come back to collect us.”

The opening scene or set-piece of Wes Craven Presents They hits the trifecta of childhood fears. 

Young Billy must contend with a thunderstorm, a closet door that won’t stay shut, and a monster hiding under the bed. These are the specters all children contend with, and the landscape, indeed, of the bed-time or night-time ritual. They's prologue is effective and creepy, and succeeds in one very profound way:  It reminds what it feels like to be “five years old again," as one character notes later in the action.

I was not prone to nightmares as a child, but I always had to sleep with my closet door shut, and I would cower under the bed-covers during thunder and lightning storms.  I still recall one night, after a long trip away from home, when I saw strange lights dancing on the wall of my bedroom, and became terrified that they were sinister. I had to call for my Mom to help.  One composition in They -- of a toy shadow moving on the ceiling -- reminded me of that occasion.

As children, we don’t truly possess the necessary governing mechanism to always control these fears of what lurks in the dark, or under the bed, or inside the closet, so They’s opening is fertile territory for a horror film. One thing that strikes me about the meticulously paced and orchestrated scene is how uncaring and unconcerned Billy’s mother seems by his terror, especially in the face of his comment that “They” are in the dark waiting for him.  She is just a blank slate. She is mildly comforting, I guess, but mostly seems to not want to be bothered.

One has to wonder if this lack of caring, or help, for that matter, is the childhood trauma underlying all the aforementioned bedroom/night-time fears.  What these things -- the creature under the bed or int he closet -- seem to be really be about is the fear of being alone, of being in the dark with no one to help. At one point, Billy cries out for his mother…and she doesn’t answer.

The creepy prologue is probably the high-point of They because it establishes a nice alternate reality. In this cinematic world, childhood night terrors are real. Monsters are hunting and taking children from their bedrooms for some dark purpose.

The rest of the movie doesn’t really work because we never learn that purpose, alas. 

We never even get a hint of it. Why are Billy, Julia and the others selected in childhood for abduction? What makes them special?

If they are abducted (as we see in the prologue) as children, why do the monsters send them back to our world and come for them again in childhood?  What's with the wait time?

And if the monsters want these particular people so badly, how come they don’t instantly grab them once the young adults have entered their domain? One scene reveals Julia wandering into another dimension, where the monsters lurk and wait. But they don’t attack her for a few minutes. They don’t even notice she’s there. They don't seem interested in her at all, a fact which goes against the idea of tagging and retrieving certain people.

If they are tagging and marking their victims (as the film makes plain), these monsters might at least notice when their victims happen into close proximity. Instead, the monsters seem sleepy and quiescent at first.

Although an attempt is made to link the monsters of They to the folklore of the incubus, it seems half-hearted, in some way.  Incubi and aliens are often linked to night terrors, it's true, but the monsters of They seem to boast a complex m.o that those mythological beings do not; one including capturing, releasing, tagging and abducting.

They works better on a metaphorical level than it does on a literal level. 

The kids who experienced such traumatic night terrors grow up to be…terrorized.  Billy -- described by Paul as “permanently freaked out” -- has sought out drugs (like Prozac) and battled depression to contend with his demons.

 Sam has become a morbid painter, creating huge black canvases of nihilist art. 

And Julia seems in denial about her past, at least at first, but everyone suspects she is having a psychotic break from reality.  

Issues like abandonment, perhaps, from their youth, have returned to spoil their adulthood.  

And things not handled in childhood have a way of coming back, affecting the present, don't they?  The monsters are therefore the personification or manifestation of such unresolved issues.

But again, as much as one can read all this psychology into the narrative, the plain fact is that the movie doesn’t provide literal explanations or motives for the creatures.  

They aren’t well-delineated in terms of their behavior, either. We see hints that they possess technology, for instance (in their tagging ‘darts’) but again, their behavior in the dark world makes them seem more like animals than beings with distinct motives and the capacity for reason or intelligence.

After the scene in which Billy establishes the rules -- that the creatures hide in the dark, affect lights, phones, and power, and  that crying children serve as a kind of an early warning system --- They hits the skids, featuring numerous encounters with the monsters, but no real rhyme or reason as to when, why, how, or where they appear to their victims.

I suppose the question I most want answered involves the disposition of the victims. Why do the creatures take them in adulthood? 

What do they do to them once they have them? 

What finally becomes of those they abduct?  

There are no clues really, and so They, as noted in my introduction, seems maddeningly vague at times. We know there are monsters in another dimension and that they tag kids, and abduct those kids as adults.  Anything beyond that is all speculation, and there aren’t even good clues here to go by.

They fails too, because the main character, Julia, as played by Laura Regan, is a bit insipid.  She is slow on the uptake, quick to panic, and just sort of irritating. Her boyfriend, Paul, is an unimaginative dullard, and one cruising on automatic pilot. His sole duty is to ignore and disregard Julia's stories of monsters terrorizing her.  Sam and Terry show more life, but exist mostly to form the movie’s victim pool. And Sam's loft apartment looks imported straight from The Ring.  I always wonder, when I see a setting like this, how a starving artist can afford such digs.

When you throw in the lousy CGI monsters, They proves remarkably unsatisfying. Like The Mothman Prophecies, They features numerous God’s Eye views of modern cities, with the camera peering straight down from a tremendous height. In Prophecies, these shots suggested a force “above” human sight and identification. Here, they add nicely to the feelings of isolation and abandonment.  

Several times in the film, we also see newscasters discussing “rolling black outs,” and this is not only an historical reminder of the Gray Davis/Enron Era in the early 2000s, but a sign that our technology is being manipulated by the monsters so they can more easily access our world. Modern society, in other words, proves as neglectful as Billy’s mother proved to be in the film’s prologue. There is no help for these people in childhood or adulthood. Nobody cares enough to actually prove helpful.

I can see why the late, great Wes Craven would produce and present a concept like They.  The notion of a group of people joined by their night terrors is highly reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and the concept of psychological disorders appearing as ‘monsters’ is also familiar from his film canon.  But given the pedigree declared by its title, They should be more than a half-explained outline of a familiar story.

It’s weird that a movie called They never decides, even for a moment, who “they” actually are, or what they want with their victims.  


  1. I wanted a sequel to THEY.


  2. Great analysis that explains why this movie should have been scary, but just wasn't. Laura Regan is much better in the recent, ill-fated "Minority Report" series.