Against all odds, it seems as though modern-day French horror has a keen grip on what is truly frightening. It can be intense — Pascal Laugier’s eviscerating Martyrs taps into difficult notions of pain and existentialism, while Alexandre Bustillo’s equally trying Inside puts an expectant mother through the ringer to horrifying effect. David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s Them is a lot simpler than either of those movies, but it’s still a potent horror thriller, and it taps into something a lot less specific and more primal: fear of invasion and of pursuit.
It’s a skeletal, bare-bones setup that Moreau and Palud get an astonishing amount of mileage out of: a young couple realizes they’re not alone in their house in the woods, and are subsequently terrorized. And that’s it; no demons conjured by misguided seances, no chainsaw-toting inbreds, no poltergeists rattling doors and stacking chairs. Them is an astonishingly simple horror film; at 77 scant minutes, it feels like a quick sucker punch, and yet it gets everything just right.
Taking a cue from the best suspense pictures, Them doles out precious few details, until those details are needed (and it’s debatable that they’re ever needed, so inconsequential are the results, but it’s a nice twist nevertheless). What makes Them work as such a convincingly tense, high-stakes chase movie is the way that the film refuses to telegraph its scares. Consider any number of rehashed, hyper-stylized mid-2000s horror flicks — The Grudge, The Omen, The Ring, pick your poison — it’s become old hat in horror cinema to let the audience know exactly when it’s supposed to be scared. Quick zooms, piercingly loud soundtrack stings… these things are basically to horror movies what laugh tracks are to sitcoms. They insist that you not judge the material on its own merit, that you jump when the film tells you to jump (or laugh when the show tells you to laugh).
Them does no such thing. There’s one beautiful shot that, to me, crystallizes why the film is so perfectly terrifying: shortly after our protagonists realize that they’re in a legitimate ordeal, they make a beeline for the bedroom to latch themselves in. As they fumble to close the door, a hooded figure materializes in the distance, heading directly for the room. It’s hard to explain what makes that shadowy figure so scary — perhaps it’s because he’s never dwelt on. A lesser film would have panned down the hall, perhaps cued up the ominous strings, but Them arrives at its scares organically, and refuses to pander. Horror is just as much about what we don’t see, after all, and at that moment in the film, that hooded apparition could be anyone or anything. All we know is that we just barely saw him, and he’s not supposed to be there.
Two years later, Bryan Bertino would be accused of ripping-off Them with his home-invasion thriller The Strangers. It’s a bit of a stretch — without giving away too much, the stalkers are different entities entirely, and the dynamic between Them‘s quietly domestic couple and The Strangers‘ troubled one is apples and oranges — but if Bertino was influenced by Them, more power to him. More films could stand to be like this — quick and dirty, unbearably tense, and completely terrifying.
Extra Credit: Well, while you’re at it, why don’t you give The Strangers a shot? It taps the same primal fear vein as Them, and even boasts a few skin-crawling moments of creeping dread of its own.