The 00s were an amazing decade for horror cinema. From the Asian suspense to the rise of outback horror and of course Hollywood's reconciliation with the horror icons of yonder, fans enjoyed a global stream of horror films to quench their thirst for the morbid. Though in the end it were the French that reigned supreme. Ils [Them] is one of the films that made a name for itself back then, 10 years later I was dying to find out if and how it had survived the hype. Truth be told, I wasn't disappointed in the slightest.
I guess Alexander Aja kicked off the French horror hype when he released Haute Tension, though its broader origins could be traced back to the grim, late-90s arthouse cinema of directors like Denis, Noé and Grandrieux. Aja was followed by Gens, Bustillo, Maury and Laugier, directors whose films where characterized by their directness and harshness as well as their stylistic presence. Them doesn't really fit that mold, besides being French of course, yet is was thrown in with the rest just the same.
Them is actually a less is more kind of horror flick. It's a pretty basic home invasion film that holds few surprises (a small twist at the end, though it's more of a revelation than an actual twist) and bets everything on execution. Them is a smart film that never overplays its hand. It's short, features only three seperate settings and a small cast, but that's all it really needs to put you on the edge of your seat. The rest is just pure, uncut tension conjured by Moreau and Palud.
The film follows Lucas and Clementine, a young French couple living in Romania. Lucas is a writer and working on his latest novel, Clementine took up a job in a nearby school, where she teaches French. They live in an abandoned country house and contact with the local community is limited. Even so, they live a pretty comfortable life, until one night they're being harrassed by someone or something. Not sure what their assailants are after, Lucas and Clementine hole up in their house, knowing fully well their old bunk isn't exactly suited to keep people out.
Even though the film looks somewhat unremarkable nowadays, Them was part of that early DV movement that ruffled quite a few feathers back then. The choice for DV adds to the agility of the camera work, which is used to great effect when people are sneaking in and around the house or when they are chasing each other. The bad news is that most of the film is shot at night or in the dark, which results in some overly grainy images. I feel the overall visual balance is still positive though, but there are times you have to cope with lesser image quality.
The soundtrack is a pretty typical horror affaire. Not bad, properly executed but not all that noticeable. It does add to the atmosphere, yet you'll be hardpressed to remember much of it afterwards. The use of certain sound effects is more interesting and has a more profound impact. It's nothing spectacular or innovative, but some well-timed thumps, a few exaggerated noises and a strange rattling noise are what I remember best from Them's sound palette.
Them is a small film in every sense of the word, so it's no surprise that the cast was also kept to a minimum. There are a handful of extras, basically no-one qualfies as a secondary actor and then there are of course the two leads. Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen do a solid job, both as a couple and as two hunted people who don't know who or what is chasing them. The panic and fear in their bodies is tangible when they sneak through the house and their surroundings. These are fairly limited performances of course, they didn't have all that much to work with, but they do an excellent job nonetheless.
Them is the perfect example of a film that plays its strengths and doesn't overstay its welcome. It's an easy film to fault if you don't care about home invasion cinema, it never really ventures outside of its genre boundaries and adds very little to what's already out there, but it's tailored to perfection. Knowing how it all ends did affect a second viewing, although the tension remained tangible throughout. It's just that the little revelation at the end had lost some of its initial impact.
The duo went on to make the unfortunate US adaptation of The Eye and each went their own separate way after that. A real shame because as a duo they showed great promise directing horror films. Them is a perfect genre film, one of those films that won't disappoint when you have any love for its niche. It's an easy recommend, unless you feel completely impartial to the genre, then it's probably best to just leave it be. I still enjoyed the film a lot though, even when I watched it the second time around.