Within my remit for Horror Addicts, I take pride in bringing you the best of European and Extreme cinema – and so far I’ve tried to combine the two in every film. This time, I’m dropping the Extreme Cinema tag and will be showcasing a French film which disturbs not from pushing the boundaries of violence, taste and decency, but from building ultra-taut suspense and terror.
“Them” (or “Ils” as it is called in its native tongue) is a tense chiller directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. It is set in semi-rural Romania, where the protagonists Clementine and Lucas have relocated – she is teaching French in the local school and he is a writer. Presumably due to the favorable exchange rate between France and Romania, the couple have acquired a large old house in extensive grounds – and it is here that their horror is to take place.
“Them” is essentially a “home invasion” movie, but unlike other recent offerings in this sub-genre it is not a tale of thugs holding the innocent captive and torturing them. Instead, it is about the terror of being hunted and the fear of helplessness. It has a pounding sense of violation, and the shattering of sanctuary.
To make a film with the aspiration to truly scare takes a great deal of skill, and this prowess is successfully evident in “Them”. The viewer senses they are in the hands of craftsman from the beginning. The film opens to show a sequence which lets the viewer know what they are to be afraid of, and then takes a slow-burn approach to build the characters, the prey, layer by layer until we care sufficiently about what then happens to them. However, this isn’t laborious – too much characterization can be dull but here the pacing is timed perfectly.
Just as the viewers become acquainted with the couple, Clementine awakes to hear a strange noise outside their home. Lucas goes to investigate, and from here the film seeps into the nervous system with long, drawn out, suspense sequences where the protagonists are assailed in their vast home by unseen intruders.
A nightmarish atmosphere is created by the “cat and mouse” game which plays-out through attics, corridors and dusty, disused rooms. The highest praise is worthy of the directors for refusing to use cheap jump scares – not once is the audience conned by a phoney smash-cut. Instead a minimalist score of humming and repetitive bass notes combines with the eerie noises made by the attackers. We feel the fear of the hunted as they run and hide – desperately trying to stay unseen; but the things in their house are coming and they want the couple to know it! There are many of them and we are never quite sure what they are.
“Them” employs a lot of set pieces common to such movies: the scary phone call and the electricity getting cut, amongst others; but it does them so well and combines them with tricks of its own that it does not lessen the impact of the film.
The empty house provides a terrifying setting for events to unfold; even this factor is escalated with the rising tension as the pursuit spills into the grounds and through woodland, ultimately ending up in labyrinthine catacombs. The directors have a firm grip on base human fears such as claustrophobia, fear of the dark and the terror of being hunted; they conduct these with devastating precision.
The ending of the “Them” needed to be worthy of the tension built through the flawlessly short running time, and it honored the previous 70 minutes by not only being traumatic and harrowing but also by producing an image that verged on the artistic – one of those celluloid moments where the viewer is transcended from the fiction and feels the character as if they were really there. Purely as a visual it is on a par with the final shot of Leather Face in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
“Them” doesn’t cheat the viewer, and neither does it patronize with silly scares. It masterfully sculpts fear and inflicts dread with finely honed precision. Hitchcock would have been proud to make this film.