Wes Craven presents a lot of stuff. Carnival of Souls, Dracula 2000, Mind Ripper, Don't Look Down... They is the latest movie to have his name hover ominously above the title, but having his name printed on promotional material seems to be the extent of his involvement. The name "Wes Craven" doesn't appear at all throughout the opening or closing credits. He doesn't even get a vanity 'executive producer' credit. It's as if Dimension Films had 1,600 prints of They all ready to distribute throughout the country before a marketing exec stormed in, insisting that the title is too vague to ensnare a large audience. Maybe there was confusion that people might think They had a bunch of six-story tall radioactive ants. In any event, even with Wes Craven's name meaninglessly attached, reception to They was tepid, grossing less than $13 million during its domestic theatrical run. Oh, but there's always home video, and six and a half months after lurching into theaters nationwide, They is now making its way onto DVD.
They begins in the bedroom of a frightened young boy, convinced that some sort of unseen creature is going to leap out from the shadows and rip him to shreds. His mother does her best to calm him down, and when she leaves, some ominous sounds have him huddled under his sheets, flashlight in hand. He knows that the creature only lurks in the dark, and the attack that ensues haunts him into his adulthood, as he becomes obsessed with research and keeps on-hand enough batteries to power a small city. If you thought I'd somehow slipped into a review of Darkness Falls, I'm sorry to disappoint. Both They and Darkness Falls begin almost exactly the same way.
Billy pops up again nineteen years after that traumatic incident to warn his childhood friend Julia (Laura Regan; Unbreakable) that there was more to the night terrors they experienced growing up than she could have ever imagined. After nonsensically rattling off something about electrical disruptions and the pronouns that are taking advantage, Billy whips out a pistol and scatters, smothers, and covers a dingy diner with what's left of his mind. Julia soon encounters two of Billy's former roommates who've also suffered from a recurrence of night terrors, and together, they learn more about the creatures that have been stalking them from a distance. Julia's obsession pushes her to the brink, putting a damper on her relationship with her boyfriend Paul (Buffy's Marc Blucas), spoiling her chances of snagging that Masters in Psychology, and threatening her very sanity.
The blurb on the cover art claims that They is "terrifying" and helpfully recommends "don't see it alone". Always one to take the advice of an anonymous ABC-TV critic, I watched They with an old friend from college, but I don't think independent confirmation that the movie isn't all that great was what 'they' had in mind. They is of the mindset that as little as possible should be shown on-screen. Sometimes this can be highly effective. In this case, that approach makes for a dull movie, especially considering that director Robert Harmon's resumé includes a movie as visceral as The Hitcher. There isn't a lingering glimpse of the creatures for the film's entire runtime, just what looks like tentacles and spade-claw hands. Like the creatures of Pitch Black, these monsters don't resemble anything in particular, and they steer just as clear of light. Continuing with the laundry list of expected exploitative elements, the body count is almost non-existent. Since the premise is that "they" drag their victims into some sort of extradimensional shadow world, I guess that means Billy's suicide marks the only death, and even that's handled in a cutaway fashion. There is zero gore and next to no blood, and what tiny trickles of the red stuff are present generally drip from small sores. They has one fully-clothed shower scene, and from the way Julia's introduction ends, I thought Robert Harmon was aiming for two. There is some blink-and-you'll-miss-it nudity from a body double late in the movie.
Admittedly, a horror movie can be 'scary' without resorting to boobs, blood, and beasts. What does They have in its place? Talking. Lots of talking. There are a few jump scares interspersed throughout, but They's aim appears to be more psychological in nature. Perhaps to drive the point home even further, every other character in the movie is either a psychologist or a psyche major. By "every other character", I mean "two, I think", but hey, I'm prone to hyperbole. The creatures have no background, no motivation, and it's never explained why they insert homing beacons into victims and stalk them instead of just grabbing 'em for good. Maybe the netherworld has strict tag-and-release laws. I don't need to know everything about the creatures, but having some vague inkling as to why they exist and hunt this handful of people in particular would've been nice. Some of the motivations for They's two-legged characters are as ambiguous, particularly one bizarre sequence in which Julia goes to a subway station apparently for the express purpose of vomiting. One of the best parts of They is its ending, and not just because that meant I could turn my DVD player off and breathe a sigh of relief. I'm not enough of a bastard to spoil anything, but the ending is a pleasant detour from convention.
They is the sort of movie I'd describe with an apathetic shrug, not terrible but certainly not what I'd consider to be 'good'. The film's lackluster performance at the box office apparently failed to instill a great deal of enthusiasm in the folks at Dimension Home Video. They's release on DVD comes with a high sticker price and only one brief extra worth a mention.
Video: They is presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The presentation is expectedly solid overall, though the number of specks throughout seemed incrementally higher than normal for such a recent theatrical release. Crispness and clarity are reasonably strong throughout, and some of the close-up shots in particular exhibit outrageously high levels of detail. Some interior shots struck me as the slightest bit soft, but that appears to be an intended part of the photography rather than any sort of flaw at the telecine stage. Much of the film is set in low-light, and the image remains clear and detailed even under the dimmest conditions.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448Kbps) is more reserved than its Darkness Falls counterpart. Like the movie itself, the soundtrack doesn't bludgen the audience, keeping its aural assault to a minimum. They makes subtle but effective use of the various speakers at its disposal, frequently providing a creepy atmosphere with creaks, chirping, and various atmospheric effects lurking in the rears. This most noticeably comes into play when an isolated character is locked in a confined space with a creature. As the terrified victim looks around the room, the monsters' chittering bounces from channel to channel, adding further to that sense of fear and confusion. Speaking of fear and confusion, screamo act Thursday is prominently featured on the soundtrack, and I'm not sure I could live with myself if I didn't mention that at least briefly. The LFE gets a bit of nice use as well, particularly in one sequence late in the movie as a subway car roars overhead.
The English six-channel mix is the only track on this disc, and They also includes English subtitles and closed captions.
Supplements: The featured extra -- and the only one directly related to They itself -- is the alternate ending that was attached to some overseas prints. This ending, which runs just shy of four minutes, played much closer to how I was expecting They to wrap up, but delving into any more detail gets rather spoilery. Another welcome surprise is that this footage is presented in anamorphic widescreen, though with only Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (192Kbps). The movie's IMDb entry makes mention of a number of other trimmed sequences, but nothing else has been provided for this release.
The only other extras are 'Sneak Peeks' for various other releases, including Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2:28), Below (1:43), Dracula II: Ascension (also "presented" by Wes Craven; 1:00), Invincible (1:02), and Equilibrium (1:19). Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Equilibrium are both letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the remainder are full-frame. Though none of the five trailers are enhanced for widescreen televisions, they do include Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (384Kbps).
They features a bland set of static 16x9-enhanced menus, and like many recent Buena Vista releases, the keepcase does not include an insert listing the movie's seventeen chapter stops.
Conclusion: They is an improvement over the glut of PG-13 horror of recent years, but it's surprisingly tame considering that the director of The Hitcher was at the helm. It's an okay movie, but I wouldn't be willing to pay the $18-$20 this disc is likely to street for when it hits store shelves on June 10th, and I definitely wouldn't shell out anything close to its faux-rental-pricing of $29.99. If you have to see They, Rent It.