*. You can’t have a lot of faith in those “critical” blurbs that appear on DVD boxes. Aside from the fact that many of them come from websites that you’ve probably never heard of (and that may no longer exist), they tend to be a bit extreme. On the front of this one we’re told that it “nears perfection in nearly every aspect.” On the back, a pull quote from the Chicago Tribune calls it “one of the most intelligent and unnerving horror films in recent memory.”
*. “Perfection” is an odd quality to attribute to any work of art, but especially one as messy as a film. “Intelligent,” is also slippery. And “recent memory” is a weasel word. I know, because I’ve used it myself on occasion. It doesn’t really mean anything. Whose memory are we talking about?
*. I thought Them was a very effective and efficient little movie, but nothing at all new or even that interesting.
*. We begin with a note telling us that the events are based on a true story. Hm. Where have I heard that before?
*. The true story, for what it’s worth, apparently had to do with an Austrian couple who were murdered by a trio of teens in Romania. I don’t know anything about the case and so can’t say how freely it was followed here.
*. Instead, what is followed is the usual script for most home-invasion horror films. There’s an attractive young couple living in a big house by themselves. One night a group of very bad people come to play. Clichés follow. There is a barking dog whose warning is ignored. There is a crank phone call. The girl takes a bath. The power is cut off, then turned back on. They can’t get through to the police on the phone (well, this is Romania). There is a creepy walk through the house. The man is wounded, making him ineffective for most of the rest of the movie. The girl puts her eye up to a keyhole and a pointed spike is thrust through at her. There is a scary scene in the attic as the girl is chased through sheets of hanging plastic (at least it isn’t laundry). There is a chase through the woods. There is a climactic “reveal” in a dark lair lit only by flickering light bulbs.
*. I suppose the main difference between other films of this ilk and Them is that they really delay revealing the identity of the homebreakers. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, I’ll provide the usual spoiler alert here.
*. OK, the big twist is that the very bad people are really a gang of nasty little kids. In other words, this is Eden Lake in Romania, right down to the fact that in both films the woman is a teacher. But I won’t knock Them for this, since it came out a couple of years before Eden Lake.
*. But there have been other evil kid movies. Devil Times Five comes to mind. But the not-so-subtle point being made in this film and Eden Lake is a more political one. Poor people (either the chavs in Eden Lake or the feral Romanians here) don’t like the middle class. There are certain neighbourhoods (relatively) rich people should avoid. Like all of Eastern Europe.
*. I mentioned as a cliché the part where the man, Lucas, gets wounded in the leg. This makes him into a particularly annoying figure, like when he keeps calling out for Clem when she’s trying to hide from the guy in the attic, and most notably when he makes such a big deal about her pulling the glass from his leg. Why doesn’t he pull the glass from his own damn leg then? He has to be a wimp, however, as it’s also a cliché of such films that the woman turns out to be the strong survivor while the man is a wimp because if it were the other way around that would be a sexist cliché. It’s interesting how avoiding one cliché has created another.
*. The worst thing about Lucas though is that such a wimp turns out to be — you guessed it — a writer. Which, of course, means that he’s really a wannabe writer who plays videogames while his partner is out paying the rent with a real job. Oh writers. What did they ever do to deserve such scorn?
*. I might also mention the pre-credit mini-movie as another cliché, used here (as it often is) as a way of assuring the audience that despite the slow build something good is coming eventually.
*. All of this is just to say that Them is a pretty conventional horror film in nearly every regard. I will allow that it’s pretty nicely done though. The writing-directing team of David Moreau and Xavier Palud know how to handle this material. A little is made to go a long way, and the identity of the homebreakers is artfully concealed. I like how the end mirrors the opening scene with the traffic passing by the murder scene.
*. The message? Don’t go off the main road, don’t go places you don’t belong, accept that the world is a jungle and a war of all against all. And whatever you do, don’t trust today’s kids. They were probably raised on movies like this.