Now available on DVD
Olivia Bonamy as ClÃ©mentine
MichaÃ«l Cohen as Lucas
Adriana Mocca as Ilona
Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Often times while watching a typically fright-free modern horror film I find myself wondering “is it really that hard to make a scary movie?” After all, with enough classic horror films both old and new readily available to be watched, studied and emulated (and god knows, enough bad ones to demonstrate exactly what not to do), you’d think there’d be no excuse for horror movies as ham-handed as the recent Shutter remake, for instance.
While I can’t fault every underachieving horror movie for not being a classic, “scary” should be an obtainable goal for any filmmaker who wants it. But ultimately, looking at the history of the genre and the paltry percentage of truly effective horror films, one has to believe that there’s a vocabulary to horror and either a filmmaker knows how to speak it or they don’t.
A directing team that clearly has a natural affinity for fear are the French filmmaking duo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Their first U.S. effort with this year’s disappointing remake of The Eye may have seen their talent stymied (and with much of that film reshot by director Patrick Lussier, we can’t definitively say what Moreau and Palud’s vision of The Eye would’ve been) but their debut film Them (2006), now making its stateside DVD debut courtesy of Dark Sky Films, is formidable enough to buy them at least one troubled picture before we start to label Them as nothing more than a happy, nerve-frying fluke.
Clocking in at a lean 77 minutes, Them is for the most part a savvy exercise in building maximum suspense with minimal resources. That Them‘s middle-section is more meandering than menacing and that its protagonists are more forgettable than indelible isn’t enough to discount the extreme skill that Moreau and Palud display here. What’s primarily right about Them is the complete lack of any extraneous elements. In focusing on a young French couple’s efforts to stave off an unexplained home invasion, Moreau and Palud don’t do much more than set up the premise and proceed to torture their characters and the audience.
We only know the barest essentials on the film’s two protagonists, Clementine and Lucas. Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) is a schoolteacher still adjusting to the temperaments of her young charges while Lucas (Michael Cohen) is a writer who we see using video games to procrastinate from his work. There’s no further background offered about these characters than this slight rÃ©sumÃ© info. We see them together in their remote Romanian home engaged in mundane activities â sharing a homemade dinner, lazily watching TV. They seem like an affectionate couple and this is just another night in their lives. No great plans for the future are discussed, no dramatic arguments take place.
Other filmmakers might’ve felt obliged to build in some kind of arc for one or the other of these characters but Moreau and Palud wisely steer clear of any kind of contrived movie-style dramatics. I can only imagine how a U.S. remake of Them would likely expand these characters and somehow incorporate Clementine and Lucas’ professional skills as a writer and a teacher into their bid to survive their ordeal as well as put their romantic relationship in some kind of strife so that they’ll be forced to bond as a couple again as they have to rely on each other to survive. But here, these people are just a pair of lovers, long since comfortable with each other, anticipating no turns in the road.
But later that night, when Clementine is woken by the sound of unexplained noises outside, Moreau and Palud begin to progressively ratchet up the tension. The house is under siege by unknown visitors and Clementine and Lucas seem to be outmaneuvered from the get-go. Will they have the ingenuity to survive? Who is out to terrorize them in the first place? Moreau and Palud make sure the audience is sweating out the answers to these questions.
I’ll admit, early on I thought Them would be another one for the Overplayed/Overhyped file. It started out well enough with an eerie prologue but after about a half hour I found that the film hadn’t really grabbed me yet. And when a movie is only 77 minutes long, that’s enough to make me worried. While I liked the fact that Clementine and Lucas were allowed to be caught off guard in the midst of their pleasant but unremarkable lives with nothing to define them as worthy of anyone’s wrath or attention, the fact that neither of them seems especially strategic in dealing with an unexplained presence on their property (even before any hint of violence enters the equation) left me feeling slightly disengaged.
Watching Them‘s first half unfold I was trying to imagine the kind of reaction it might receive from a US theater crowd if the exact same film had been made with an American cast. And I had to imagine that there’d be a fair amount of impatient yelling at the screen as Clementine and Lucas squander their own chances of survival as badly as the characters in any teen slasher movie. Some viewers might take such moments in stride (as when Clementine and Lucas continually separate rather than stick together â even early on before an injury forcibly sidelines one of them) as just part of the Way Things Are Done in this sub-genre, others might think that Moreau and Palud just didn’t try hard enough to put their characters in peril without often making them look dangerously stupid in the process.
But eventually, Them really kicks in for a stellar second act that tables any misgivings over the early section of the film. When things start to get scary in Them, they get scary fast. At its best, Them makes one wish that Moreau and Palud had been charged with the remake of Halloween as Them evokes the kind of white-knuckle suspense and canny use of widescreen imagery that made Carpenter’s original a classic.
When it comes time for Them‘s final pay-off, including the revelation about who these attackers are, Moreau and Palud do alright. Them‘s harsh finale played fine to my eyes. It’s simple but it gets the job done (our last view of Clementine is especially effective). As for who “them” are, I’ve read elsewhere that their identity comes off as anticlimactic but I disagree. True, it’s not a thunderous reveal but it’s not supposed to be. It’s plausible (this is purportedly “based on a true story”, after all), it doesn’t require any story-stopping last minute exposition, and for me that was enough. At least it doesn’t completely bottom out in the end stretch like another notable French find, 2003’s Haute Tension.
And even if I hadn’t felt the wrap-up was adequate, there’d be no denying that I had been effectively rattled for the greater part of Them. It’s a slight film, I wouldn’t say it rates as a classic, but it is refreshing proof that it’s still possible to jangle the nerves of even jaded horror fans with old-fashioned suspense.
The Making of Them: Torment Behind the Scenes: The key extra is this 26 minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Them that primarily focuses on the extreme physical and emotional demands that the production placed on Them’s two lead actors with Bonamy emerging as especially battered by the end of the shoot.
Commentary by Rene-Marc Bini: In this ten-minute featurette, composer Bini â who came into the film when it was already in an advanced editing stage â talks about his contributions, such as keeping any kind of melodic or thematic music off the soundtrack for the bulk of the film so as to not distract from the reality of the attacks.
The Torture of Clementine: This brief six-minute featurette focuses on a key moment towards the climax of Them and the logistics involved in depicting Clementine’s ordeal.
Rounding out the slim extras are two trailers for Them â the original French trailer and the US theatrical trailer. And as a final note, the subtitle-wary should be forewarned that there’s no English language track included on this disc. However, that shouldn’t present a reason for anyone to pass on this excellent film.