Them (Ils)

Them (Ils) (2006)

Them (Ils) first published by Film4

Summary: David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s bare-bones feature debut makes the whole slash-and-dash genre look like child’s play.

Review: After their car breaks down at night in the middle of nowhere, a bickering mother and daughter are picked off one after the other by unseen assailants. While Them (Ils) may open with the now familiar claim that “this story is based on real events”, its introductory sequence plays out like something straight from an Eighties slasher movie. Which is to say that Them is exploitation cinema par excellence, framing supposedly real-life suffering as genre entertainment – yet if this questionable conversion of genuine torment to horror thrills may leave a frisson of discomfort once the final credits have rolled, such unease is as nothing compared to the abject state of terror to which this film will reduce us as its harrowing events unfold before our horrified, perhaps half-hidden eyes.

For three months, Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) has been a teacher at the French lycée in Bucharest, while her partner Lucas (Michaël Cohen) works on his novel in their large, semi-refurbished house on the city’s forest outskirts. One night a strange voice is heard on their phone – and a few hours later the couple is woken by the sound of muted music coming from outside. Their car is driven off, the power shuts out, things go bump in the night, figures are seen scurrying in the shadows, and it soon becomes clear that Clémentine and Lucas have been trapped in their own home, while someone – or something – is determined to play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with them. 

Them is horror stripped down to its barest essentials: a home invasion, an unseen and implacable menace, a mad race through the darkness. So minimal is its set-up, and so sparse its dialogue, that every tiny detail resonates with suggestive (if often misleading) associations as the viewer is forced, like Clémentine and Lucas, to flail about in the dark trying to work out who is doing what, and why. Does Lucas’ writer’s block point to some sort of cabin-feverish madness on his part, as in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)? Does Clémentine’s terrified dash through plastic sheeting, strongly reminiscent of a key scene from Alexandre  Aja’s Switchblade Romance (2003), imply that the attacks might all be her own deranged doing? Is that weird rattling noise that we keep hearing, so similar to a recurring sound in Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge franchise, meant to evoke an angry ghost haunting the house? Or are we to imagine the house’s shadowy recesses being inhabited by creatures both supernatural and psychological, as in 2002’s underrated They (which is, after all, a literal translation of the film’s original French title Ils)? The true solution, when it finally comes, is altogether more banal – and yet all the more shocking for it. 

Shot from the couple’s confused point of view with claustrophobic queasiness – and sometimes in near total darkness – Them places us right at the screaming centre of a dreadful, desperate situation where, until the very end, the threat is never more than half-glimpsed. There is no irony or humour to distract from the horror’s immediacy, while the relatively brief duration (just shy of 80 minutes) leaves viewers with little time to catch their breath – making Them one of the most relentlessly frightening films of the last decade. For it turns us all into quivering children, abandoned to the dark. 

Verdict: This superb horror thriller breaks violently into your consciousness, robbing you of all sense of security.

© Anton Bitel