David Moreau and Xavier Palud's Them sticks to the concept but lacks depth.
Sadly, it's not a remake of the awesome 1954 classic about gigantic radioactive man-eating ants, nor is it a musical period piece chronicling Van Morrison and the gang recording "Gloria." Instead this particular Them is a well made, if extremely hollow, technical exercise.
Truth be told, this French/Romanian chiller from first-time co-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud is so wafer-thin, I'm a little wary of calling it a movie. It's more like a photographed premise.
We begin quite promisingly, as a bickering mother and daughter suffer an automobile mishap on a country road, and as if on cue, all sorts of classical dark-and-stormy-night foreboding kicks in. Right away it's obvious Moreau and Palud are from the less-is-more school of terror, offering only the most jarring, fleeting glimpses of ... well, something lurking in those woods. Since what we can't see is always scarier than what's directly in front of us (an old lesson sadly lost on tiresome gorehound filmmakers like Eli Roth and those silly Saw children), Them deliberately and skillfully obscures the threat, allowing our imaginations, with a bit of help from an aggressive sound design, to fill in the blanks.
The next morning we meet Cl�mentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Micha�l Cohen), a French couple living in Bucharest just a hop, skip and a jump away from that mother and daughter's now curiously empty minivan. Referring to these folks as "characters" might be a charitable overstatement. She's a teacher who's very pretty. He's a writer who likes to play pinball on his computer when he's supposed to be working on his novel. That's about all we're going to learn about our protagonists, as Moreau and Palud are far more interested in focusing our attention on long, sinewy tracking shots of their vast, dilapidated country manse, unsubtly laying out a geography lesson that's going to come in handy later.
Sure enough, our happy young couple has barely bedded down for the night when all sorts of creepy shit starts happening. First come the prank phone calls, just before the power cuts out. Cl�m's car drives away on its own, and then there's running--lots and lots and lots of running. First we run all the way through the house, then all the way through the woods, then all the way through a massive, labyrinthine sewer system that seems shockingly overdesigned for such a rural area.
Through it all our identity-free heroes are breathlessly pursued by ... um, Them, I guess. After all the furtive, split-second glances, we can kind of put together that these are diminutive humanoid creatures who communicate in strange amplified clicking sounds, and for whatever reason they all seem to be wearing gray hoodies.
But that's not really important, because for Moreau and Palud, the chase is the end all, be all. A full hour of the film's slender 77 minutes is spent running and jumping and shrieking and screaming--and frankly, it's all a bit wearying, before it finally just becomes boring.
As devilishly well assembled as the picture may be, it's a film without a second act. We're introduced to our leads, then the movie suddenly rockets straight into the violent extravaganza most flicks save for the climax. What's really at stake here? Who are these people, and how much more time do we have to spend watching them run around shrieking?
Purporting to be "based on true events," and carrying authoritative date-stamps on scenes that a little Web research reveals as a load of hooey, Them has puffed itself up with urban legend gimcrackery, sort of a Blair Witch-like trick to make the movie feel like more than an endless series of stunts. Worse, when Moreau and Palud finally get around to revealing the identities of these mysterious assailants in the film's closing shot, you'll suddenly realize all the other, endlessly more interesting directions the picture could have headed.
Moreau and Palud obviously know how to put a scene together, and Them feels a bit like a calling card, made to attract the attention of Hollywood producers. Perhaps they should be hired to direct the second-unit action sequences for a studio picture, and if it weren't already in the can, I would've suggested The Strangers, an October release starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman that just so happens to be the inevitable American remake of--you guessed it--Moreau and Palud's Them.
Director: David Moreau and Xavier Palud
Starring: Olivia Bonamy and Micha�l Cohen
Opens Fri., Aug. 31
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