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Friday, May 21, 2021

French-Romanian Thriller ‘Them’ is a Brutal Entry in the Home Invasion Genre [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not always be universal, but one thing is for sure  a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

When urban life becomes too taxing, escaping to more pastoral settings is a common resolution. The only problem is, troubles can travel. The French characters at the center of David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s 2006 film Them have found what feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city; they relocated to an isolated country house near Bucharest, Romania. And all seems perfect and serene until they hear unusual sounds one night — the kind of sounds that will forever undo their peace and quiet. 

Them begins with a Romani mother and her daughter being ambushed by unseen assailants on the side of a road not too far from the movie’s main venue. The next day, one of the protagonists, Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy), sees the police tending to the aftermath as she drives home from her teaching job in the city, none the wiser. That same evening after dinner and going to bed, she and her partner Lucas (Michaël Cohen) are awakened by the instigating noise; music plays outside. When it becomes clear someone has broken into their house after stealing the car, Clémentine and Lucas focus their efforts on evading their aggressors with no inkling as to who they are or what they want. The couple is finally forced to flee their home and enter the pitch-dark woods, unaware of what all awaits them beyond their once idyllic hideaway.

While The Strangers is considered the paragon of modern home-invasion movies, Moreau and Palud’s Them was technically released first. Audiences even thought Bryan Bertino’s debut was a remake because the two share similarities. Regardless of their likenesses, the core concept is not unique to either film or the decade they hail from; fictional intruders have been breaking into houses for many years. The innovation of Them comes from its choice of villains. The identities of the invaders are concealed until the third act because their ages are meant to shock. These vicious adolescents look to be around the same ages as the students at Clémentine’s school; they are between ten and fifteen years old. Upon their capture several days later, the youngest killer eerily tells authorities, “THEY wouldn’t play with us.” Children, who adults would protect in most any other horror movie, are now the source of terror.

With horror being such a flexible genre for storytelling, it makes sense to use it to address pressing anxieties. One major worry that never goes out of style is faraway threats somehow reaching home. At face value, this movie is about homeowners defending themselves, but a closer look exposes problematic stereotyping. While the children might see this couple as outsiders to their own culture — does the title really refer to Clémentine and Lucas? — depicting them as feral killers preying on the French plays on a long-standing form of discrimination. The othering of the Romani in the movie may not be intentional, but once the subtext is noticed, it is hard to forget.

As soon as the principal danger becomes apparent, Them maintains an almost consistent level of tension all throughout its relatively short yet eventful runtime. Prior to that, viewers catch a brief glimpse of Clémentine and Lucas’ simple home lives. She teases his cooking, he feeds what seems to be a stray dog each night like clockwork, and they go to bed at a reasonable hour. This mundane routine establishes normalcy before chaos settles in. Just earlier, the characters were playfully chasing each other around, never once thinking they would be running down these hallways in fear of their lives. The understood safety of their sanctuary is destroyed by the pitiless outside world.

Clémentine and Lucas, who never feel too stock or overwritten, are refreshingly unstudied in their individual actions or dealings with one another. How they react to their encroachers also comes across as believable. Lucas avoids the white knighting his male counterparts in similar movies often succumb to, and Clémentine does not sit idly by as her partner provides all the action. They are equally clueless about what to do in this inordinate situation. The pair navigates this nightmare together with equal unpreparedness and apprehension, and neither one resorts to needless heroics. They are proactive, rational, and definitely want to live, but they also do not want to save the day.

As a reaction to the rise of conservatism everywhere and the systematic sterilization of media in the mid to late 2000s, horror became more intense than ever. The aughts capitalized on growing concerns and paranoia without people realizing it. The Iraq War, mass surveillance, natural disasters, xenophobia, and the supposed undermining of culture and morality — all these things are key in understanding why everyone was, and in many ways still are, so weary and frustrated. The horror movies coming out back then were also incredibly demanding of their audiences; they subjected viewers to excessive amounts of violence and cruelty, as well as lingered on someone’s death more than was necessary.

Them, on the other hand, appears subdued when juxtaposed with other French horrors from the same time period; it does not entirely fit in with the likes of High Tension or Frontier(s), all part of a movement collectively called the New French Extremity. Other filmmakers turned brutality into a contest, but Moreau and Palud rely more on building atmosphere and manipulating darkness to evoke suspense. They are sparing with blood, and any understood scares have more to do with empathy than the actual content. 

Home-invasion movies get so far under people’s skin because of their alleged plausibility. Private living spaces once deemed untouchable are now unpredictable battlegrounds where civility and house rules no longer apply. And from the looks of it, Them helped establish these and other sizable trademarks of one of horror’s most conceivable subgenres.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3666276/french-romanian-thriller-brutal-entry-home-invasion-genre-horrors-elsewhere/

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