In a tight 77 minutes, “Them” manages to convey an unsettling message, one not easily forgotten. However, that message is enough to undermine the whole film. Like Joel Shumacher’s “Falling Down,” “Them” is a hopelessly xenophobic allegory. Thinly veiled, nationalistic treatises like this lose their luster quickly. This film is no exception.
Subtitled as “the movie that terrified Europe,” “Them” follows young teacher Clementine (Olivia Bonamy, “Chez nous c’est trois!”) and her lover Lucas (Michaël Cohen, “The New Adventures of Aladdin”) as they relocate from France to the countryside of Bucharest, Romania. On their first night home, someone, or maybe two, terrorize the young couple. Clementine and Lucas try desperately to escape before the perps make it inside.
In essence, a young, affluent French couple move to the wilds of Romania and are immediately terrorized. As viewers learn later, the perpetrators are Romanian. They are violent with no purpose, sadistic without reason, inhuman and devilish to the nth degree.
Considering France’s long history of xenophobia towards the Romani people, coupled with how they’re represented in the movie, “Them” takes on a political edge. Though it isn’t a welcome one. In 2009 alone, the French government forcefully expelled some 10,000 Romani back to Romania and Bulgaria. The following year, 8,300 more were kicked out by August. Since then, 51 Romani camps have been demolished with a little over 1,200 of their inhabitants shipped back to their respective countries. Each of these governmental crackdowns was preceded by a long history of xenophobia against the Romani people, especially Romanian French people.
That’s not to say the message is obvious at first. It isn’t. If you ignore it, the movie might be more enjoyable. That being said, it can pack a punch when it wants to. The opening scene for example, taking place on a deserted back road, is a master class in tension. This scene sets the bar so high that it’s a damn shame the rest of the movie falls short.
Such high tension is nearly impossible to maintain, but directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s efforts are laudable. They use darkness effectively, cleverly cloaking threats in the darkest parts of the frame. Sadly, the sound design is terrible. Sounds of all types vary wildly in volume, resulting in some overbearing jump scares and muted horror.
While “Them” is a laudable thriller, it falls short thanks to its divisive xenophobic subtext and its poor sound design. The best thrillers and horrors rely on subtle editing, sound cues, and darkness. Moreau and Palud use darkness well, but everything else is run-of-the-mill home invasion fare. What sticks with viewers by the end is not the horror of being stalked, but the horror of oppression and what role the media plays in perpetuating it.
Director: David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Release date: July 19, 2006
Rating: 3 out of 5