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.
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.
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.