cast: Olivia Bonamy, Michael Cohen, Adriana Mocca, Maria Roman, and Camelia Maxim

writers and directors: David Moreau and Xavier Palud

77 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
[released 2 July]

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon

I’m the kind of guy who checks the doors and windows are secured each night before going to bed. Twice. Some nights, I even have to check every room and closet in the house for intruders before I can rest easy. Them (aka: Ils) is a film that taps directly into this type of modern urban paranoia; and once it gets a grip on you, it doesn’t let go.

Bleak, bloodless, with minimal (and naturalistic) dialogue, and keeping most of the action to a select few well-chosen locations, this French/ Romanian production manages to generate more tension, more suspense, and more genuine dread over its relatively short running time than any horror film Hollywood has produced in the last 10 years.

The plot is so pared-down that it barely exists: a young couple (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen) that have just moved in to a huge, slightly run-down house in the country are terrorised over the course of one night by mystery assailants. These would-be home-invaders have already killed, and the only question posed by the script is, when will they stop playing and finally kill the couple they have chosen as their next victims? A series of increasingly bold attacks and infiltrations are carried out on the house, and it soon becomes apparent that the largely unseen

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It’s terrifying. It is also socially relevant, and cuts to the bone, stripping away all artifice and cinematic trickery to reveal the reality of a thoroughly modern terror. Towards the end of the film, when the action shifts to a series of subterranean vaults and sewers, the intensity is cranked up so much that I could barely watch, and there’s an awful sense of inevitability that stains every frame of celluloid. You know things are going to turn out bad; all you can do is hope that it isn’t as bad as you imagine.

Most recent American horror films, like Hostel and the Saw trilogy, seem to have lost sight of the noble aim of scaring the viewer, and opt instead for an almost pornographic level of cruelty and violence. This is undeniably disturbing – at least, it is when it’s done well – but the effects do not linger for much longer than it takes to turn off the DVD player or walk out of the cinema. Alternatively, the emotions experienced in a film like Them will haunt you for a long time afterwards; its low-key, almost quiet terrors are ones to which we can all relate, and are essayed here with admirable restraint.

The final revelation is as depressing as it is timely, and even if the events portrayed aren’t ‘based on a true story,’ as the opening titles would have us believe, then they could just as easily have happened down the street, or in a town or village not far from where you live. After the downbeat ending, I was left feeling shaken, uneasy, and depressed: if only more modern horror films worked on this level – and worked this well – then my flagging faith in the genre might be restored.

On a final note, I fear that many may find Them a dull viewing experience, with its subtitles, bare-bones cast, absence of gore scenes, and a reliance upon a slow-building sense of terror rather than cheap shock tactics. But those of us who understand the true essence of horror, and yearn for a return to the basic principles, will revel in the seriousness of its approach and the artfulness displayed in its execution. Then we’ll forget about all that, and check the doors and windows are secure. Twice.