I sometimes wonder if Eastern Europe is as mysterious a place for people in Western Europe as it is for people here in the United States. For us, it’s an obscure place — a somewhat monolithic land still struggling after throwing off the yoke of communist oppression. It’s a place of strange languages and cultures. For those with some familiarity with history, it’s a land of continual strife. For those of us interested in tales of the supernatural, Eastern Europe looms as the birthplace of vampire tales and werewolf stories. Whether we are conscious of it or not, Eastern Europe, as seen through western or American eyes, is a threatening locale. It’s the perfect place to set a horror flick.
Them (original title Ils), is a French-Romanian film from 2006 written and directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. It tells the story of Clementine and Lucas (Olivia Bonamy and Michaël Cohen), a French couple who have taken up residence in a dilapidated country estate outside of Bucharest, Romania.
Their house is a grand old pile surrounded by neglected lands. Everything is dark and overgrown. It looks as if it used to be quite the stately home, but time, and a couple of generations spent behind the Iron Curtain, have left it a drafty old fixer-upper. It’s a dream home, I have to admit. It’s loaded with character, and perfect for an attractive 30-something couple with no kids. But, danger abounds.
One night while relaxing the evening away, a group of unknown people begin terrorizing Clementine and Lucas. They break into the house, forcing Clem and Lucas to lock themselves in rooms to try and stay safe. It’s not clear how many home invaders there are, but they make no bones about their business in the house. They’re not there to rob. Rather, the unknown assailants seem to be getting kicks from panicking the house’s beleaguered occupants. They want to frighten and to torture and to kill, and make the whole thing last long enough to get some truly good sadistic jollies out of it. They are cats batting mice around before finally sinking their teeth in.
The house at this point takes on an increased significance. It’s no longer just a pretty location to look at, but part fortress and part funhouse. Clem and Lucas are forced to outwit the home invaders in order to survive. How, and whether, they are able to do so plays out swiftly, as the film has a runtime of only 74 minutes.
Moreau and Palud didn’t waste a whole lot of time once the main plot gets going. This swiftness is partly down to the fact there isn’t much to the plot. How much more complexity can a filmmaker add to a home invasion story, after all? The meat of the film is no less extensive than a viewer could expect from any other horror film or thriller. What’s different is that there aren’t long scenes of introspection on the part of the characters, or much need for setup. There’s an introductory scene that is separate from the main action, and had that been removed, this film would be barely longer than an episode of Game of Thrones.
My point is this film is lean. It’s also taut and whatever other adjectives one can think of for a film that doesn’t have a lot other than its main action. Good for us, then, that the main action is so gripping. Clem and Lucas, through no fault of their own, find themselves in danger in their home. That’s where people are supposed to be their most secure, and the mysterious home invaders shatter that security. The big reveal at the end — that is, the identity of the invaders — makes the whole situation even that more horrific. I won’t spoil it here, but the final act left me feeling more dread than fear. It’s one thing to scare a viewer, but when a horror film makes one feel dread at the senselessness and cruelty of the modern world, then that’s a good bit of filmmaking.