The Is It a Slasher? series allows us to examine films that we do not consider pure Slashers, but that are so close as to be worthy of discussion. We also hope these posts will engender debate as to whether the film in question does or does not constitute a Slasher and, yes, we welcome the possibility that our opinion may be changed through such a debate.
This time we examine Them (2006).
Them, also known as Ils (its original French title), is an expertly-crafted film that takes to heart Hitchcock’s famous definitions of surprise and suspense. As many of you (should) know, Hitchcock described the difference between suspense and surprise thusly: surprise is a bomb that explodes, suspense is knowing a bomb could explode.
Them follows a young French couple, Clémentine and Lucas. They live in an old rented home in the Romanian countryside where Clémentine works as a French teacher. One night, Clémentine is awakened by a noise, and it soon becomes clear that they are no longer alone in the house.
Suspense is built subtly at first, but it’s the knowledge that this actually could happen (and, in fact, did happen; the film is based on a true case), that make those noises, those almost banal happenings so terrifying. This isn’t just the knowledge that a bomb is nearby, it’s being able to imagine exactly what it would feel like to be within a few inches of an explosive device. It doesn’t take much to put oneself in the shoes of Lucas and Clémentine. We have all been awoken by a strange noise only to realize that it was the fridge clicking on or the neighbor’s cat decrying its readiness to mate, but it doesn’t take much to imagine how we would feel, how we would react if, instead of the fridge, instead of a cat, we’d come to realize the noise had been produced by an intruder.
By allowing the viewer to so easily—though unwillingly—empathize with thecharacters, the filmmakers, David Moreau and Xavier Palud, make of Them an intimately frightening film that maintains tension throughout, without let up and without ever going for shocks. The scares here are not produced with sound cues or pale faces jumping out from the shadows; it’s actually just one long, constant scare that keeps reminding you that you know just how it would feel to be Lucas or Clémentine.
With a different third act, Them could’ve been a run-of-the-mill haunted house story, as the suspense seems almost supernatural in nature. The lights go out, doors slam, water runs, all, it appears, of their own accord. The realisation, however, that these strange happenings are brought about not by spirits but by living, breathing people, people who appear to have no other motive than to exercise cruelty, is all the more frightening—while the true identity of those people is full on disturbing.
Them is not a Slasher film—the body count is far too low to qualify—but it is an excellent film and is certain to please most Slasher fans. In fact, I would love to see a Slasher film that demonstrated as clear an understanding of tension and suspense as did Them. This exact movie, with a group of five or six being terrorized rather than a couple, with a few elaborate kills thrown in, would make a fantastic Slasher film. Not only should fans of Slasher cinema see Them, but the makers and potential makers of Slasher films should also see it, study it, and take notes. The makers of Slasher films, especially recent Slasher films, have become masters of the kill, the surprise, the exploding bomb, but, generally speaking, they still need a lot of work when it comes to mastering the build-up, the suspense, the implication that there’s a bomb somewhere and that it’s going to explode.