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Walterego tells us all about.... THEM!!!

Harry here on a quick secret daylight raid of coolness, figured I'd get a few SXSW reviews up. I'm DYING TO SEE THIS MOVIE! Here it is...

Review of THEM follows: The SXSW film festival began Friday night in Austin, TX, and one of the first movies screened at the Alamo Drafthouse South was the French suspense-horror film THEM (originally titled ILS for its 2006 release in France). For those AICN readers who don’t already know about the Alamo Drafthouse theatres, one of its great features is that food and beers are served to you in your seat during the movie. The best way to describe how suspenseful and unnerving THEM was would be to say that my Royale With Cheese burger was delivered to me 15 minutes into the movie and when THEM ended about an hour later, I hadn’t taken a single bite (THEM clocks at a brisk 77 min). As the credits rolled and the ushers came in to tidy up I finally ate my by then cold burger. Normally when you watch a horror film at 9:30 on a Friday night you hear a fair amount of audience chatter and noise like little shrieks or giggles. This audience sounded like 70 people trying not to breathe. I knew next to nada about the film because the synopsis offered by the SXSW website simply said it depicted a young married French couple living near Bucharest, Romania who are menaced in their isolated house by intruders. The two French guys who co-wrote/directed it, David Moreau and Xavier Palud, haven‘t made any other films which would have provided me with an idea as to their style of horror. I did read they are currently filming the remake of the Hong Kong ghost movie THE EYE, so I thought before the movie that the intruders might be supernatural in nature. Not so. This French pair are apparently devotees of the notion that low budget horror just needs to keep it ultra-simple. This movie is the polar opposite of HAUTE TENSION, which had too many bizarre plot twists for its own good. THEM clocks in at a brisk 77 min. Moreau/Palud realize that one of the most effective ways to grab and hold an audience’s attention is to have the protagonists simply listen carefully while they try to figure out who is threatening them, where they are, and how many of them are there. Lucas (Michael Cohen) and Clementine (Olivia Bonamy, a dead ringer for Angie Harmon from Law & Order) are awoken at 3 am by a noise downstairs. What else can the couple do but check it out? The “they” in THEM are not mutants or cultists possessed by Satan, they are simply nameless, faceless characters wearing hooded jackets/sweatshirts who are out to play a game of cat and mouse before killing their targets. They never speak until the end, and we don’t see the edged weapons they carry, instead we hear them scrape and tap them against pipes, doors, and walls. The most effective device used by THEM is a click-clack noise device like you’d spin on New Year’s Eve. The movie opens with a woman and her teenage daughter in a minivan driving along a dark street flanked on either side by tall hedgerows. She swerves to avoid something darting across the road and hits a streetlight pole. The mother checks under the hood while the daughter, who looks like a Romanian Elisha Cuthbert, cranks the engine. Her perspective is completely blocked by the hood, so she can’t see her mother anymore. The mother stops answering, and when Kim Bauer-ski gets out to holler in Romanian: “mom?” There is no one there to reply. When she keeps yelling into the shadowy hedges, that click clack noise comes out of them, and then a male voice whispers back “mom” in a taunting tone. She rushes back into the minivan and but locking the doors doesn’t work well because “They” have the mom’s door-unlock remote key now. Bad times ensue. It is a cliched setup, but it works because its delivered convincingly and without irony. I’ve seen that scenario I don’t know how many times but I was still in suspense as soon as the hood blocked the view of what was happening outside the minivan. These directors aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, they are just trying to deliver solid tension from tried and true predicaments and acting that seems authentic to how reasonable people would behave. There is absolutely no gore and much of the violence is implied without being shown. When we are introduced to Clementine the following day, she drives from her job as a French teacher at a Bucharest school and passes by the minivan being towed away by Romanian police. I’ve never seen modern Bucharest in a movie, and it seems beautiful and gothic like Prague, but more medieval. I noticed a horse drawn cart puttering down the street in the periphery of one wide shot. Just after passing the minivan, Clementine turns down a long driveway to her house and we realize she lives very close to the scene of the previous night’s crime. When she answers the phone just before she goes to bed and hears only disquieting sounds and that click-clack noise maker, we know that “They” have started their game again but Clementine doesn’t know what to make of it and goes to bed. She and her husband are renting one of those European manor homes with 20 foot high ceilings and doorways tall enough for Herman Munster. The house is apparently about a century old but not dilapidated, like it was built to last in the pre-communist era. The door to Lucas and Clementine’s bedchamber has a heavy bolt that is so sturdy it seems built to lock out Dracula himself. You’d think it was the gate to Minas Tirith. But earlier in the evening, while Clem and Lucas chat with each other about the novel he’s writing , we notice how vulnerable and open the rest of the house is, ringed with huge windows that the couple aren’t particular about latching, and surrounded by high forest which sound echoes through, making it impossible to pinpoint its source. The house has the creepiest attic since BLACK CHRISTMAS. By the time Clem and Lucas awaken after 3 am to a noise (and we aren’t sure if it is downstairs or outside), it feels as though the entire house could have been penetrated in the hours that the couple were asleep. Horror fans know the weapons villains use (Jason’s machete, Leatherface’s chainsaw, Freddy’s glove, etc) but seldom concern ourselves with the weapons that protagonists use other than Ash’s boomstick/chainsaw combo. Mainly the hero characters are totally inept at using guns. When they try to use a gun, they miss, run out of ammo, jam, forget the safety, and they drop guns so much you’d think they were made of wax greased with butter. So what are the effective protagonist weapons? One would be the handy dandy kitchen knife. A well stocked kitchen is a potential arsenal of things that stab, clobber, or burn, and horror directors appreciate that they can’t be used until the villain is at point blank range. But the French couple don’t get to their kitchen (Zut alors! Jacques Pepin would have a cleaver and carving fork in each hand at the first sign of trouble), instead they opt for that other stalwart sidearm of home defense: the fireplace poker. So few homes have a working fireplace and yet in horror films those pokers are everywhere. It makes sense in THEM because of the archaic look of the house. The house’s TV is even a black & white model for some reason. Now here I come to the only faults that people are likely to find with this movie, other than the lack of gore or nudity. The movie takes pains to do two things, first, to emphasize that the movie is based on actual events. It tells us the exact date, October the 6th and 7th in 2002, that the events occurred near Bucharest. Secondly, it avoids showing who “They” are until the very end. However, since THEM was released in France in 2006, there are plenty of film discussion forums which contain spoilers about how the “actual events” aren’t exactly as portrayed in the film, since the filmmakers originally heard of the incident from some cabdriver in the Czech Republic. Also , who “They” are might strike some as a trifle implausible. However, if you watch the film without reading those spoilers, you will find that such issues are trivial. I knew that WOLF CREEK took a great many liberties with the incidents it was “based” on, and that didn’t stop me from being very depressed by the sadistic suffering the characters endured. If you make the mistake of reading the spoilers, however, it will make it impossible to view certain scenes as credible. Which would be a shame, because the film’s abilities to scare the crap out of you is dependent on the way that its scenes seem so very authentic, like it could happen anywhere, most especially in an isolated suburb in rustic Romania. -Walterego. P.S. Here is the link to the trailer in French only, no subtitles. CLICK HERE
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