Pop quiz: how many French horror movies can you name? Say you start with Les Diaboliques and then graduate to Eyes Without A Face, then... er, Brotherhood Of The Wolf and... Okay, we’re struggling now. Switchblade Romance. How many’s that, then?
The French make horror movies like pandas make love – not very often. But when they do, they really get their rocks off. Them (Ils, GCSE French failers) is the latest entry in France’s on-off love affair with films d’horreur. No cerebral Left Bank chin-stroker, it’s an adrenaline-laced jolt of pure fear. Everycouple Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen) – having upped sticks to Romania where she teaches the Gallic tongue, and he loafs around writing his masterpiece – wake up as their isolated house on the edge of a forest near Bucharest is invaded, their car stolen and electrical system tampered with. Then for the next 45 minutes or so, they run, hide, scream and pant for breath while trying not to fall victim to the thing that’s after them.
Qu’est-ce que c’est? Well, the less you know, the better it works. Debut writer/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud keep you in the dark (often quite literally, as Them is fond of confined spaces and takes place predominantly at night). Sadly your overactive imagination is likely to be scarier than anything the directing pair can deliver, which may be the film’s biggest, most glaring flaw. The “Is that it?” ending will leave some disappointed, but what comes before it is worth seeing. Or not seeing, since you’ll probably have your hands locked over your peepers as the faceless terror creeps around, creaking floorboards and breaking windows...
Them shares a producer with Irréversible and, like Gaspar Noé’s back-to-front revenge-rape drama, it could have been ripped straight from the tabloid headlines (not that we’re giving away why, though). It helps that actors Bonamy and Cohen aren’t the usual identikit US teen victims. Instead, they draw us in since they look like us, act like us and – here comes the shiver – could be us. That gives the movie’s standout shocks a truly disturbing quality. Clémentine’s creep through a loft space covered with an absurd abundance of plastic sheeting, an eyeball/keyhole scene lifted straight out of Dario Argento and a subterranean tunnel climax lingering in the corners of the mind even when you’re back on the sofa with your front door securely bolted.
“You’ll never feel safe in your home again!” scream the taglines. And while that hardly sounds like an attractive reason to watch, at least this time they’re not exaggerating.
Claustrophobic and exhausting, Them fumbles its payoff but reminds us why French chillers are a rare but thrilling treat.