Them, or Ils in the original French, is a mumbling hour and a half film. Set in a cavernous and probably drafty country house in the Romanian countryside, two French lovers go to sleep like any other night but are awakened to revving engines outside and what follows is a cat and mouse game full of creaking staircases, jarring noises, screams, and dialogue so sparse you could probably skip the subtitles and still follow the plot.
Them tricks you into sitting on the edge of your seat, setting your drink down, and folding your hands in your lap by the time the opening credits have finished. Before the French lovers, before the haunted house, a mother and daughter drive down a secluded road after dark. The car breaks down. Mom pops the hood. Screams. Steps. Strangling. Finally, a hand hits the window and slides down slowly.
What do these two women have to do with the story? Not a thing, aside from to show you immediately and viscerally that there is some Other hiding out there that will strangle you and your daughter when the engine overheats.
The film doesn’t start moving until Clementine rolls over in bed and asks Lucas if he’s awake. There are weird sounds outside: tires squealing, an engine revving. When he finally rolls out of bed and creeps down the stairs, he staggers into the front lawn into darkness and headlights turn on. Someone is in his car.
The car speeds towards him, slams on the breaks, and then reverses. Lucas screams for the thief to come back. As soon as it’s over it seems underwhelming. Is that really all we get? Headlights, some shouts, and a car driving away?
“They came into my house,” Clementine shouts over the phone. Someone snuck in while they slept, stole her keys, and drove off with her car. Then the lights go out. You can hear creaking sounds. Footsteps on the floor above them, perhaps. The pair hide by the bed and then the alarm clock starts to go off. Lucas picks it up, fiddles with it, and failing to turn it off by any normal means, throws it against a wall.
This, to my mind, is one of the truly interesting qualities of the movie. A lot of parts of the film are neatly explained at the end, as home invasion creep films often are, but who set the alarm?
The unexplainable synergy of forces throughout the house add a level of evil, of not quite magical realism that sticks to you after the film ends. It’s based on a true story, after all: Romanian children who attacked a couple — but what about alarm clocks that sporadically panic and cannot be turned off? What about power outages?
When Lucas finally finds it in himself to go back downstairs the TV is on. A faucet runs. There are crashing sounds. The lights are working again. He turns the TV off but when he returns it is on again, this time playing white noise.
The film continues like this. Bizarre inconsistencies littered throughout, sparse enough you might miss them, but they contribute sinister energy to what is otherwise a simple home invasion.
Someone sneaks up on Lucas, strikes him, and sticks him in the leg with a spike. He’s left limping in retreat, begging Clem to save him and she’s trying to pull it from his leg and he can’t move and people are coming.
The film is moving now. A zombie-like teenager in a Zuckerberg-esque hoodie waddles through the house, chasing Clementine into an attic full of plastic tarps. He appears behind her but when she discovers him, she twists around and pushes him off the balcony. He falls to the ground silently.
Soon they escape the house. Maybe the quiet dark countryside is safer, given the circumstances. Lucas can barely stumble along and when they encounter a fence, Clementine is forced to abandon him, to carry on alone and try to find help. And then they go underground, as if the filmmakers were granted an awesome underground dungeon tunnel system but were told, “You can only use it if you engineer a chase scene here with absolutely no buildup or foreshadowing.”
Clem and Lucas were separated but they both end up down there, Clem captured, Lucas rounding a corner to discover her being suffocated by a teenage boy while a slightly smaller boy shouts, “She can’t breathe!” Lucas bludgeons the boy to death, saves Clem, and the younger boy offers his assistance. I suppose his clear defiance to the larger boy is enough character development in a film like this to qualify him as an ally of convenience, but really, would you follow this kid?
He leads them to a ladder and Clementine climbs it, then the kid, then Lucas. As soon as Clementine makes it to the top, the kid goes rogue and kicks Lucas to the ground, killing him instantly.
And Clementine is screaming. Clementine is running. Clementine is being chased.
The eerie ending of the film is the most devastating part. She runs the tunnel but soon discovers the end is barred. There is a busy street outside, cars driving along on their way to jobs and school, but they won’t notice her. She shoves her arms between the bars, waves frantically, screams some more. But no one notices. The camera shoots from across the street so you can see her between the cars. Then a car passes between her and us and when it has passed, she has disappeared.
The last shot is the same kids traipsing down a road towards a bus, presumably on their way to school.
The easiest commentary on Them is that it is exactly what it is: a low budget haunted house film, twisted just enough to almost fit the oeuvre of Spielberg or Hitchcock, with scare chords and shaky cameras replacing the CGI too many similar films rely on. The medium warm commentary is that it’s a subtly xenophobic response to Romanian immigrants in France and the inclination of Eastern Europeans to be, you know, psychopathic teenagers who chase people through dungeon-like sewers and viciously murder them.
The problem with these takes is the stuff they miss from the film. What happened to the tall silent man in the hood who stumbled through the house after Clementine, who silently fell to his death when she pushed him from a balcony? What’s with the alarm clock? How’d the lights go off and then on again? Were a handful of Romanian teenagers really capable of working all these angles, and, if so, where’d they recruit the zombie boy in the hoodie? He didn’t even cry for help when he fell to his death.
An interesting twist to the story is that Clementine and Lucas refer to the Others in the story as “they” or “them.” Yet when the ending credits role, when we get the ending text about how this is based on a true story, we learn the kids killed them because “they” wouldn’t play with us. We learn that from their perspective, the couple living in the house is “them.” So, in the context of the film’s title, who is “Them?” The kids, the couple, or both?
Or perhaps its about something else entirely. Perhaps there is some menacing force that turns off lights and turns on TVs, that runs faucets and makes alarm clocks lose their shit. Perhaps it can possess a young man to stumble through a house in a fugue, attacking people. Maybe it can start cars. Maybe it can kill your engine while you’re driving down a road with your daughter. Maybe it can make noises. Maybe it can fill young children with the urge to kill.