Opening Friday, August 17th (limited)
Olivia Bonamy as ClÃ©mentine
MichaÃ«l Cohen as Lucas
Adriana Mocca as Ilona
Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Even if the frustrating conclusion to the French slasher “High Tension” drove you into the streets to massacre a few infants in the name of less gimmicky U.S.-bred horror, you’ve got to admit everything leading up to the big reveal was a tight, slick, atmospheric bender. A brisk cardio workout to get the heart pumping. “Them” (or, its French moniker “Ils”) – hailing from the same geographic location – is a similar sweat-inducing, nerve-racking experience; one of heightened mystery and playful cruelty that’s all about “a moment” – a snapshot of a peculiar crime that befalls a young couple living in an idyllic country home in Bucharest. It unites the best of two sub-genres – the home invasion film and a haunted house tale – and heaps suffocating ambiance on top of ambiguity.
The thrust of it is this: A teacher and a novelist, Clementine and Lucas, spend a quiet evening in their expansive fixer-upper. They wine, dine, tease each other, make love, sleep. An archetypal evening for a couple madly in love. As Clementine’s restless attempt at sleep creeps into the early morning hours, she begins to hear strange noises outside. The pair investigates and what begins as a car theft careens into an intrusion on their lovely manse. Hiding from their multiple would-be attackers is the best they can do, moving from room to room and up into the attic before Lucas is injured. Then the setting switches to outside where the chase continues into the surrounding woods until Clementine and Lucas come face-to-face with the threat – and it all becomes clear why writer-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud found this a story worthy of telling.
But it escalates to an abrupt end.
“Them” forgoes closure and vests its coda in shock value that is disturbing, yes, but you wish the sheer directorial talent that’s oozing out of every dark, moody frame was put to better use on a more full-bodied story. Being an account ripped from European news headlines, “Them” refrains from embellishing where it really needs to. The film has no third act. It maintains a sense of loyalty in the fact that it is “based on true events” and doesn’t stray too far off the beaten path. Artistic narrative liberties would have been very welcome. Nonetheless, “Them” is a trial piece, a visually arresting demo reel for Moreau and Palud, an experiment to push their actors through a hellish night and to see if they, as filmmakers, can make it look and sound real intense – a test to see if they’ve got the chops to make something startling.
They succeed, for the most part, specifically in the audio department. The design is cranked to eleven here and it’s a ferocious feast of sound effects: Creaking footsteps, a maddening and ominous clack-clack-clack, feral howls echoing through a wooded landscape cut by sentinel-like flashlight beams. On the opposite end of the aural spectrum, the silence works to Moreau and Palud’s advantage especially well too. The viewer is left with Clementine and Lucas to be swallowed bleak textures of Axel Cosnefroy’s photography.
Olivia Bonamy, last seen by horror fans as the colorful demon ass-kicker “Bloody Mallory,” and Michael Cohen sell their predicament with the required heavy-breathing, wide-eyed panic you come to expect. There are some particularly intriguing bits of dialogue relating Clementine’s occupation to the nature of her attackers, but any room for further analysis is lost once the action kicks in (and I’ll avoid saying much more to avoid getting into spoiler territory).
Narrative be damned, “Them” is set-up and execution, plain and simple, a flick that is a taught 78 minutes of creeping around and a succession “boo!” gags. Like any decent funhouse, there are thrills to be had on a purely visceral level the first time around. The resonating effect, however, is as flimsy as cotton candy. Still, Moreau and Palud enjoy playing on your nerves like confident bassists, striking up all the right familiar chords to give you goosebumps. It just kills me to say their tune loses its novelty when the safe glow of the theater lights come up. So much of “Them” freaked me out on my initial viewing, a return visit to see it in the theater – with the knowledge of the dire events that unfold – left me apathetic. I wanted to love it again, but I couldn’t. The sinister charm disappeared.
“Them” is best left experienced once.