Wednesday, April 22, 2009

DVD Views: Them (Ils) (2007)

Them (Ils) (2006) ****
Directed By:
David Moreau & Xavier Palud.
Written By: David Moreau & Xavier Palud.
Starring: Olivia Bonamy (Clémentine), Michaël Cohen (Lucas).

Them is an exercise in pure movie terror. That the plot of the movie is so simple, and the characters all completely one dimensional, doesn’t matter. This is a movie about generating fear and terror in the audience, and it does that brilliantly. Along with Neil Marshall’s The Descent, it is far and away the scariest horror movie of the decade.

The movie opens with an amazingly intense sequence that last about 10 minutes. A mother and her daughter are driving in their van late one night. They skid off the road and hit a pole. The mother gets out to check under the hood, and asks her daughter to try starting the car a few times. The engine still doesn’t work, and the daughter gets out to check what’s wrong. Her mother, who was behind the hood is gone. She hears a weird rattling noise. She works down the street calling for her mother. Nothing. She goes back to the car. The keys are gone. The automated doors keep locking and unlocking. She is terrified. She is strangled to death.

This sequence is brilliant and intense in its own right. It perfectly builds the tension to an almost unbearable level, daring you to look away, although you know you can’t. In 10 minutes, the filmmakers have grabbed you by the throat and let you know what is to come.

The rest of the movie – just over an hour (it’s a short movie), is like that scene only longer, and even more intense. Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) are a French couple living in Romania. They have a huge, sprawling house out in the middle of nowhere. She comes home from work, they laugh and flirt and play and have dinner then go off to bed. Clementine is awakened at some point during the night by loud music outside. She wakes up Lucas and they go to investigate. Their car isn’t park in the same spot it was before. Lucas goes further the headlights flash on and someone guns the motor coming towards him, and then flees. They call the cops, but agree to wait until morning before they go any further with the report. Then the light goes out. The phones are dead. And there seem to be flashlights all around them shining in the windows. Who or what is outside? And what do they want?

That is the essential setup of the movie. The rest of the movie deals with who or whatever is outside, and what happens when they get inside. We don’t see who is it terrorizing Clementine and Lucas until really late in the movie. For most of the movie, all we see is hooded silhouettes, shots of feet and flashes of them off in the distance. Clementine and Lucas, who injures his leg in the early going, stumble from one dark room of the house to another, trying to get away, but not being able to quite make it. There is a virtuoso sequence in the vast attic, with plastic sheets hanging everywhere, which is the one of the most intense horror movie sequences I have ever seen. It is matched later in the film as Clementine flees through the forest, and outdone when Lucas follows the sound of Clementine’s screams through an underground series of tunnels. Horror movies don’t generally scare me much anymore – especially not when I’m sitting on my couch at home – but this had me terrified almost from beginning to end.

The movie is pure cinema. The film is told all through images and sounds and doesn’t rely on gore or blood to scare us (after all, blood isn’t scary by itself), but rather on the unknown. It places us in the position of Clementine and Lucas, and ask us to identify with them – not because they are sympathetic people – although they do seem nice – but because they are fellow human beings who are being tormented for no logical reason that we can see. We place ourselves in their shoes, and wonder what exactly would we do in the same situation. The attackers seem to be everywhere all the time, and always one step ahead of them. There is no escape possible.

I know that the decision to reveal the identity of the attackers created a little controversy, because critics felt the unknown was more terrifying then the eventual explanation. Personally, while I see their point and would not have been upset had the filmmakers chosen to not reveal the identities, I thought that what they did do only added to the unsettling nature of the movie. When we find out the truth about what is happening, our blood runs cold

On the strength of this film, their first, directors Xavier Palud and David Moreau, came to America to make horror films. Their first was last year’s god awful The Eye with Jessica Alba. Watching Them, after seeing The Eye, you wonder how the same filmmakers could be responsible for the two films. Them is truly one of the very best horror films of the decade.

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