I'm ashamed to say that I'm not really on top of my world cinema; although I'm aware there are nations outside of the UK and the US that do make films, I'm hardly an expert on movies from non-English speaking nations. Take the Romanian film industry, for example: I assumed they were still making movies with potato prints and finger puppets, but boy was I wrong. Following on from last week's rant about the shabby state of modern horror
, here's a horror movie straight from the land of gypsies and gymnasts that does everything right; Them (otherwise known as Ils) is lean, mean and it'll leave your underpants anything but clean.
Although it was directed by a Frenchman, it's set and shot in Romania, it's based loosely on a true story and tells the story of a French couple - Clementine (Bonamy) a teacher and Lucas (Cohen) a writer - living in a huge, quaint old house in the middle of the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thick forest and swathed in darkness. Presumably their estate agent didn't mention the high chance of home invasion that such accommodation brings, because upon settling down one night, their house is attacked by outside forces who seem intent on causing them maximum distress. At only 77 minutes, it's mostly skin and bones and there's no room for flab - character wise, it's just madame, monsieur and their unwanted guests, and there's absolutely no needless dialogue or witty one-liners. It's this simplicity that's the core to Them's success: this could, and no doubt does, happen to anybody.
Forget about chainsaw-wielding lunks or space goblins with a taste for flesh; the bad guys in Them wear hoodies and trainers. Revealing the identity of the intruders would lessen the impact of the final reveal shot (a fitting ending) and the 'inspired by a true story' caption at the start kind of limits the options, but it matters not, because what's scary about 'them' is that you don't know what 'they' are. In the first half of the film, they're only ever glimpsed through the crack of a closing door or heard from the next room - it's the fear of the unknown; what you can't see, CAN hurt you. The first time they make a full-screen appearance, we the audience are as startled as our protagonist, perhaps because we've been reared on movies that have their orchestra swell whenever danger is imminent. The scene plays out in an eerie silence and the results are nothing short of chilling. When the action moves out of the house and into the woods, some of the ungodly noises coming from the darkness will have you breaking out in a cold sweat - it's the best scene of woodland terror since the Blair Witch ate those kids, and like the handheld-shot horror show, it's what lurks in your imagination that gets you really spooked.
The tension rarely relaxes and is upheld throughout; my girlfriend's hand certainly got a workout (dirty monkeys) because I was clutching it like it was goddamn winning lottery ticket for the best part of an hour. It's telling that Them is the only movie I've seen that, after I left the cinema, left my bag of sweets untouched - there's just no time for mallow treats when horror is this well realised. The opening scene, which precedes the credits, takes a simple horror staple - breaking down on a country road in the middle of the night - and makes it feel fresh and new. There's something terrifying about bad guys with no motive at all; something or someone that isn't interested in money, power or bloodlust, but just wants to fuck with you for no reason. Isn't that scarier than a faceless freak with a power tool or a posh Chianti-drinking cannibal?
Them has obviously been shot on the cheap, and although it lacks the professional sheen you get with bigger budget productions, its griminess suits the tone perfectly - stripped down to the bare essentials with no theatrics and no pyrotechnics, it's an ugly movie that is wise to stick to the shadows, playing to its strengths by using what you can't see rather than what you can. It could have perhaps done with a little more time in the editing room - some shots are re-used and the sound mix leaves something to be desired - but Them hits hard where it counts: the money shots are all worth their weight in gold.
Perhaps 'horror' isn't quite the right term to describe Them; 'terror' sums it up much better. Although the word has been associated with bearded bombers and cartoon advertisements
of late, it's not a movie that revels in gore or tries to shock you, rather one that tells a terrifying story that everyone can relate to. Sparingly shot and ingeniously executed, it's a film that subscribes to the idea that real life is far scarier than anything you'll see in the movies. Support the Romanian film industry and go see it immediately, but don't get too attached - it will
be remade one day.