The art of suspense is a dying one indeed. Few in the fright filmmaking game know how to bring the dread without drowning it in gore or messing it up with goofiness. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the bloodless thriller is. It must work on psychological as well as physiological and pragmatic levels. It's all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment. Perhaps David Moreau and Xavier Palud can give correspondence courses in tension and anxiety. Their tight and efficient French chiller Them proves that, when done correctly, nothing is more satisfying than a good old fashioned nail biting horror rollercoaster ride.
It's late. While driving home, an exasperated mother tries desperately to connect with her teenage daughter. Something spooks them, and Mom sends the family minivan off the road and into a traffic pole. Upon investigating, she hears something in the woods. She never returns.
The next day, we meet a young French teacher and her writer boyfriend. They have just moved into a sprawling home in rural Romania and are getting acclimated to their new surroundings. That night, Clementine is awoken by a strange noise coming from...the nearby woods. She gets Lucas to look into it. They discover their car has been moved - and then someone steals it right before their eyes. Soon what appears to be a group of intruders has overrun the home. They drive Clementine and Lucas into hiding, and eventually, out into the open. The couple's only chance is to escape into the remote countryside and try to find help...if thy can.
Originally released under the French title Ils, Them (no connection to the '50s giant ant movie people) is a wonderful little self contained firecracker. It argues for the talent of the duo behind the lens, as well as proving that the sour Hollywood remake of The Eye that the two were involved in was merely a fluke of paycheck cashing proportions. As a film, it does practically everything right - it gives us easily recognizable and slightly complex characters, it offers relentless and malevolent villains, atmosphere to spare, and an attention to filmic language that's hard to escape. Like a boa constrictor slowly strangling you to death, Moreau and Palud keep the fear flowing and the direct effect claustrophobic. Constantly keeping us off guard while allowing the action to grow organically, we become part of the macabre cat and mouse, unable to find shelter or respite from the tireless terrors encircling us. Clementine and Lucas become vicarious victims, our own emotions intermingling with theirs to create a compassionate connection. By the end, when it looks like our lovers will meet a decidedly fatalistic end, we can hardly stand it. We've become so involved in the narrative, so tied - directly and metaphysically - to the events transpiring that it literally becomes too much to bear.
And that's the sign of a successful suspense film. Them plugs along on a power forged by brilliant turn of the century cineastes and perfected by Hitchcock and Carpenter. It does its dirty, sinful business in a lean, mean fright night-ing kind of machine gunnery. When it's quiet, it's practically embalmed. When it explodes, it's like the fires of Hell are literally licking at the heels of our heroes. Flawlessly balancing the needs of the genre with the updated cynicism of the post-modern mentality, this is Hostel for everyone who hates Eli Roth's hirsute bravado, High Tension for everyone who found that experiment in terror more 'haute' than horrifying. It's the very definition of a creep out, a by-the-book illustration of the power inherent in film. Moreau and Palud are not reinventing the wheel here. There's no novel twist on the title type or jump into smarmy self-effacing satire. Instead, they rely on the formula to feed their fever dream, and it does so dynamically. There will be some who find the movie mediocre, who see people freaking out over unseen noises in the dead of night and laugh their MTV/Fear Factor butts off. But for anyone who ever felt their spine go cold while an unidentified sound frazzled their nerves, this movie is masterful.
The acting does go a long way toward selling the shivers as well, especially when the undeniably odd denouement plays out. Olivia Bonamy is excellent as Clementine, doing both the studied teacher and terrified casualty bit with an equal amount of emotional heft. While given much less to do except suffer early on, Michael Cohen gives Lucas a sad, not quite stoic persona. We just know he's going to be the 'death' of this couple in the long run. The "based on true events" reveal, with its kinship to other Eastern European caveats, does take us back a bit. We get the distinct impression that some of the facts may have been exaggerated even before Moreau and Palud (who also handled the screenplay duties) fictionalized them further. And when you think about it, the identity of the title entities is somewhat anticlimactic. It's not just the realization of what this means to the movie - it's the notion of what it says about post-Communist Iron Curtain communities in general. Still, these are minor quibbles for a film that really does deliver on the dread scale. While others merely pretend to understand the facets of fright, Moreau and Palud have them down pat...at least, when helming their own non-Hollywood J-Horror retread.
Presented by Dark Sky Films in a wonderful 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer here is terrific. Our directors use light and shadow to sell their scares, and the picture here preserves such a strategy effortlessly. Even in the night scenes, there is very little grain and lots of atmospheric ambience. Overall, this is a tight looking little thriller.
Sound is also crucial to the success of the film (the 'killers' use aural cues to let their victims know they are coming) and the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is remarkable. The back speakers really deliver a sense of foreboding, while the action scenes crackle across the channels. As for the dialogue, it is in French and Romanian, and the subtitles are easy to read and never intrusive. There is no English track for this film, however.
The added features here are on the light side, but they do give us insight into the production. A Making of documentary provides a glimpse behind the scenes of this intense shoot, while another EPK on composer Rene-Marc Bini discusses the score. The "Torture of Clementine" featurette discusses actress Bonamy's trials and tribulations, and a collection of trailers rounds out the content. While not the most impressive array of supplements, this DVD still provides a nice amount of backstory and production details.
Part of the reason Them is so illuminating is that very few macabre moviemakers work in such a subtle manner these days. Instead, it's all whiz bang bullcrap and PG-13 positioning. Another explanation comes from just how good David Moreau and Xavier Palud are at making this kind of material work. There's a sickening efficiency as part of this film's mechanics. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is one of the best foreign horror films of the last decade. Indeed, for anyone convinced that nothing good can ever come out of a single setting work of tempered terror need look no further than this fine effort. If your only experience with this duo is the deadly dull The Eye, please give Them a try. Anything 'Ils' would be a mistake.
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