Written & Directed by: David Moreau & Xavier Palud
No, there are no giant ants, at least not literally. Them (Ils) comes into American theaters by way of France, and as such—you know the French—it isn't content to be, merely, an exceptionally effective thriller, which it is, but sees necessary to double-up as a metacinematic examination of horror film and its theory. (They won't get any complaint from me.) From the beginning, during a tenuously related introductory sequence in which a mother and daughter's car breaks down on a country road, horror conventions are acknowledged and gently mocked, as when, upon impact with a wooden pole carelessly placed on the edge of the road, their car's radio turns on by its own accord, releasing a blare of heavy metal music that is quickly, thankfully, silenced. (Leave it to the Bride of Chuckys and Freddy vs. Jasons, this is of a different breed.)
Them, god bless it, earns all of its jolts through old-fashioned manipulation of the medium: long tracking shots refuse to cut, thusly refusing to alleviate the accruing tension; snaky passageways and dim lighting allow the shadow-drenched frames (at times the screen is lit by only a Zippo) to threaten to unleash frights from any and all corners at any and all times; while ambient sounds, like a snapping twig or a soft thump, irrationally assume a malevolent strength, as watching the film becomes as unsettling as actually being aroused from sleep, especially in the middle of nowhere, by something going bump in the night.
Set in Romania—which the film denigrates all along the way—Them fills its short running time with the horrors an expatriated French couple—she (Olivia Bonamy, a Tina Fey type with her glasses on), a schoolteacher; he (Michaël Cohen), a writer—experience as their remote, dilapidated manor, both ramshackle and attractively spacious (the house's condition serves, meanly, to represent the decimated condition of its national setting) is terrorized by someone(s) or something(s) throughout one uncommonly unpleasant night. The struggle, as unprovoked as the one in Spielberg's Duel, moves from the house to, where else, the woods, following the chase trajectory of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; but, instead of finishing in another house, albeit one far more gruesome, as that film does, Them finally settles underground, as Guillermo del Toro would surely have it, in an old and petrifying stone sewer. (It's a move far more Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.)
Foremost, the intruders are showmen, malicious taunters, who are able to so effectively terrify the couples (both the central one and the quickly killed-off mother-daughter combo from the intro) because of the terrifying atmosphere they consciously construct; that is, not, at first, because of anything they do directly but because the stage they set is so frightening. (So to speak, it's not the skeletons that jump out, but the haunted house milieu at the amusement park that is the true source of fright/delight.) As such, they can't help but become a diegetic stand-in for the directors and crew, who also happen to be using the same tricks to scare the hell out of the couple's surrogate, the audience.
At first, the duo is tormented by a single beam emanating from a flashlight, a sensible, symbolic representation of the projector bulb; later, the woman is attacked by one of the presumable bandits through plastic sheeting that's hanging in her under-renovations home, a clear representation of the movie screen through which the filmmakers are simultaneously attacking the spectator. Finally, and most violently, when the woman assumes the role of a voyeur, trying to watch what's happening to her husband through a keyhole down upon her knees, she is punished by a knife, which comes shooting through the lock, to the eye. Never before has the horror movie had such a beautiful and economic visual symbol.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW
The filmmakers keep the tension running high by taking their time in relieving the suspense, whose major source is the mystery of the attackers' identities. In the end, it is revealed that they're a gang of miscreant children, one of whom claims, tearfully, "we just want to play," omitting that they also want to kill! While it's easy, facile really, to read Them as a critique of modern children's lack of discipline and Romania's infestation of savages (titles at the beginning boast that the film is based on a true story), the ending instead serves as an apologia from the filmmakers for their own behavior over the last eighty minutes, as well as for the genre in general. At a time when most horror movies, fairly or not, are being scolded for their "senseless" violence, Them's immature villains are a self-deprecating admission of (male) juvenescence from the filmmakers, both on behalf of themselves and the genre itself. But they're also a defensive declaration that horror movies are simply a game played together by director and audience, not intended to be taken too seriously or literally, so please, forgive them, men and genre alike, and just enjoy. When done right, so purely, as it is in Them, the horror movie is proven as viscerally delightful as any other type of film.