Them, the 2006 francophone home invasion shocker (Ils in its native tongue) and not the 1954 classic about giant mutant ants attacking Los Angeles (though both flicks do feature extensive tunnel systems in their final scenes), is film whose modest ambitions pay off in effective and pleasing ways. Using really brilliant sound design, a wonderful cavernous mansion set, an elegantly simple plot, and a couple of game actors, the director/writer duo David Moreau and Xavier Palud deliver on of the best of the recent crop of French horror flicks, and they do it without clumsy bids for sociological relevance (I'm looking at you Frontier(s)) or needlessly "arty" inscrutability (and now I'm looking at you: last fifteen minutes of High Tension).
The story is simple. A young French ex-pat couple, writer Lucas and French teacher Clementine, spends the weekend in their large, but decaying country home. Before they get in even one good night's sleep, a gang of mysterious evil children begins terrorizing them. For next hour (the film clocks in at a svelte 77 minutes), Lucas and Clementine run for their lives, pursued relentlessly by these faceless attackers through home, forest, and what appears to be an abandoned underground bunker.
That's it. Pretty simple.
The pleasure of watching Them is similar to the pleasure one gets watching the performance of a great athlete: you're watching excellence within a well known and narrowly defined field of endeavor.
Despite title cards that warn viewers the film is based on a real story (and, apparently, is was loosely inspired by an actual crime), the plot is ruthlessly focused on Lucas and Clementines' long, brutal night, avoiding any exposition or tangents that produce drag. Even the characterization is economical. There are a few scenes that quickly establish Lucas and Clementine as a happy, functional couple and that is that. What more do we need to know? Even the overall narrative structure is bare bones. There's a disposable prelim round kill – a mother/daughter team gets dispatched pre-credits to establish that the villains are no joke – and then we get down to business. At the end of the flick, there's a close out scene with a couple of title cards to sort of tie up some lose ends, and then that's all folks. In a way, the film's structure reminded somewhat of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not that the plots are similar or there's any theme or tone connections – in fact, if children didn't play such as sinister role in the film, it would barely score a PG-13 – instead, one gets the sense that the film gives us a little prep, then shots through the scares, and then says, "Hey, I'm done." It doesn’t conclude so much as just stop. I don't mean it as a negative criticism. It's actually refreshing. In fact, I think the movie could even have done without the last title cards filling in some details.
Visually, the film is a slick production. It has the richly textured feel that has become the dominant visual style of contemporary horror. Somebody recently described the style as "dreary," but I don't see it that way. In contrast to the bright, high-contrast colors of '70s Euro horror or the muted we-know-we-end-up-on-VHS palette of '80s slasher flicks, the colors in films like Them form deep pools of warmth or darkness covered over in an a subtle gloss – like the worlds depicted in these films are always just seconds away from a thunder storm. This gives the sets an anxious beauty that heightens the sense of detail rather than dulls it. Combined with an almost obsessive eye for set design, it gives the viewer the impression that the characters in these films live in world of accumulated detail, rather than a world designed to make a single artistic statement. It's Hergé by way of Se7en rather than the seductive 1970s art-house nightmares of the Euro set or pseudo-verite of something like TCM. The direction is confident, though the characters sometimes get lost in murky lighting and the result is not tension but eye strain. I would also add that there were some scenes in which the spatial relationships within the house were lost on me: Are we on the roof now? Is this the greenhouse we saw earlier? Overall, though, the directors manage to keep everything lucid, which is no small task considering that this movie is pretty much a 60 minute long game of cat and mouse.
The real technical achievement is the film's sound design. For most of the movie, the kiddie cult that brings our protagonists so much woe exists mainly as a series of slashing flashlight beams and a web of shouts, clicks, whistles, and other signals. It turns them from a gang of kids into a sort of airborne toxic threat – they don't surround the house so much as settle on it. It is genuinely brilliant. Possibly the best use of sound in a horror flick I've seen since Cloverfield (though considerably less deafening). The effect was slight dampened by my lack of a home theater, though viewers with the full-on sound set-up are in for a treat.
Them is arguably too slight a film to be a classic. It won't shift how you feel about the genre and it's not likely to haunt your dreams. But it is solidly suspenseful and delivers fully on everything it promises. It's hard to find fault with that.