This review of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them is part of the New French Extremity Retrospective series.
The premise of Them is exceeding simple: a couple (Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen) is trapped inside their isolated home in the country when unseen assailants torment them from the outside.
And that’s it. The short, not-quite-80-minutes-long film comprises this one conceit (and a cold open that accomplishes the exact same conceit but in a well-paced, taut nine minute span). The tension of this home invasion plot is never quite felt. Certainly it never comes off as inspired, merely treading familiar lines as it maneuvers around its dimly-lit locales.
Mainly, the film pursues its goal of suspense through the inhuman off-screen sounds and lack of visibility of its antagonists. Primarily, all that is seen of the attackers are the bouncy glow from their flashlights or a silhouette of them garbed in hooded sweatshirts.
The unseen can be terrifying. The knowledge that something is out there but you don’t know where and thus are helpless to protect yourself is cause for base-level fear. Survival instincts kick in. We want to see our protagonists win out in the end because we know their faces, we can sympathize with the animal drive to outlast the predator.
But there can be too much invisibility. That it takes over 45 minutes (which, in this case, is more than half of the film) for us to see even the shadow of a killer makes it hard to quantify the danger of the situation. Yes, we have the opening sequence to establish the potential for grim outcomes, but that open feels so disconnected from the rest of the movie that it is hard to mesh the two when we are watching this couple move around their home in defense.
Even if the stakes can be inferred—this is a horror movie, after all, so we can expect the worst for our “heroes”—the sheer darkness of the landscape does not succeed in amplifying the suspense. The figures linger in the dark, but there is no juxtaposition. Not to mention that once these lingering figures strike, there is little in the way of emotional payoff vis-a-vis fear.
The closest thing we get to an eerie quality is with the grainy footage, likely a cinematographic answer to the dark lighting, that adds an ugly, grisly feel to the aesthetic. Beyond this, the filmmaking comes off as rote horror, with lots of hand-held and POV shots.
The film’s climax works to remedy some of the tonal shortcomings. A chase through the sewers proves to be the closest thing to tense that the film has to offer. There is a kind of queasiness to a reveal about our antagonists, as well as an ominous ambiguity to the fate’s of our protagonists.
Still, Them hangs hollow throughout most of its runtime. There is a lack of ingenuity or spark that would make this film standout from all of the other horror films of its ilk.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)