Efficient, pared-down run-and-hide horror, Ils (Them) arrives today in New York. Its pleasures are limited in scope, but many in numbers. With its basic, nearly can’t-fail premise (young man and woman are terrorized in their home very late at night by unseen intruders), terrifyingly narrow focus (we aren’t privileged to see anything the characters don’t), and sweetly brief running time (77 minutes), Them excels as a neat little experiment in pressure-cooker filmmaking—though outsized plaudits and praise won’t do any favors to such a modest, if well-crafted, work.
The debut film of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, Them is exactly the sort of moviemaking 101 obstacle course directors should hurl themselves through. This is a calling-card feature, and it’s textbook (in a good way): around 4 in the morning, an attractive, appealing young couple (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen) hear noises downstairs in their country home conveniently tucked away in the dark woods. Upon investigation, they are forced into a terrifying game of hide-and-seek with the unknown, not-too-friendly intruders, barricading themselves in bedrooms, bathrooms, and attics. This is of course, just the set-up, and as for the rest, the less said the better. It’s par for the course at this point to say that when “all is revealed” it’s more than a bit disappointing; while the film never resorts to final-act Scooby-Doo mask-pulling, it does ultimately dissolve its own tension by granting closure on the story, an especially defeating, strange tactic for a film that is so much more about texture and atmosphere than narrative. And if it is “based on a true story,” as it claims, in some very Texas Chainsaw-ish opening text, the film would be even cheaper than it seems—a gear-grinding fright machine cum social problem picture?
Portentous title cards and twist endings aside, Them is less about who is out there or even what is happening to the characters than what is happening to the audience. Much of Them consists of screw-tightening of a high order: cuts are jarring but never spatially displacing or showy (the old looking-through-the-key-hole moment is used to great, rapid effect), and Moreau and Palud are adept at placing figures in the frame at oblique angles so that they’re nearly subliminal in their threatening poses. Part of the film’s success is undoubtedly that it doesn’t overstay its welcome (even ten more minutes would have been a problem, as the grip of high tension cannot be sustained for long without your mind wandering), but that shouldn’t be a criticism of the directors, who have designed the film as the merciless little nugget that it is. While it has none of the allegorical or emotional heft of the similarly stripped Blair Witch Project (and certainly none of the lasting impact of that film’s unforgettable final image), Them is equally adept at heightening the viewers’ sense amidst sounds of crackling branches and images of barely illuminated shapes. In a summer of garbage like Hostel Part Two and Joshua, Them isn’t a revelation for horror, but it’s a welcome return to form.