For the next three months, join me for a summer abroad, as I check out foreign films from countries that have made a big splash in the horror community. Of course, in the spirit of this column, I’ll be taking a peek at movies that may not be as well-known as some of the classics from their particular country. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to find a few surprises together.
June is here and we have just passed the summer solstice, so the days are long and the sun is warm. I would imagine that means you are craving a movie that will leave you curled up in a ball weeping into clenched fists right about now. Well, you’re in luck, because our first stop on this summer tour is France. Now, you may be thinking, Since when is France depressing? It’s the land of smoking in outdoor cafés, pungent cheeses, and casual attitudes about sex. You make a fair point. However, France, like many countries, has worked hard to cultivate its cultural reputation. But, for the better part of the year I’ve been doing a deep dive review of Alexandra West’s Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity. If you’ve been following along (and if not, you wound me deeply), you’ll know that the New French Extremity wave of the late '90s/early 2000s is a direct response to what filmmakers saw as a deliberate attempt to ignore some deep-seeded flaws in French society. These films take a magnifying glass and hold it unflinchingly to issues of misogyny, xenophobia, racism, and classism in brutal detail.
I very much appreciate the themes discussed in French extreme films, but due to their tendency to be unrelentingly bleak, I only seek them out sporadically lest I irreparably break something in my soul. I still remember being very excited when I started up Inside, the first French extreme film that I ever rented following a ton of buzz about the movie. This excitement gradually faded into a blank stare that remained well into the end credits along with the feeling that I very much needed a hug. Likewise for Martyrs, which is a very well-made film that left me feeling so drained afterward that I wondered if I ever wanted to bother with another French extreme film ever again.
So, for me, reviewing West’s book has been an exercise in exploring these themes of the New French Extremity without necessarily having to experience the films firsthand. One movie that intrigued me enough to take a chance on, however, was David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s 2006 home invasion thriller Them (Ils). The film focuses on Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michaël Cohen), a married couple from France living in a secluded house in Romania. One night, a group of hooded strangers begins tormenting the couple, who soon realize the intentions of these intruders are très malveillant (I’m aces with Google Translate), and they attempt to flee their property and get to safety.
Before we dig in, let me just lay down a blanket SPOILER ALERT because much of the discussion about this film requires me to talk about the film’s biggest reveal: that the intruders turn out to be a group of local Romanian children. As West explains, such a twist is very much in line with the subversive attitude of the New French Extremity. Home invasion films already upend the viewer by breaching one of the few places where we generally feel safe. Add to that the fact that the villains are traditionally those we as adults feel most compelled to protect, and we’re rapidly approaching “cats and dogs living together” levels of hysteria here.
What makes the twist particularly effective is that the psychological torture the intruders apply to Clémentine and Lucas reeks of their immature nature. This is all a big game to them, and we all know how intense children can be when they get really into a game. We also know how good they are at pressing our buttons as adults, and we see that taken to an extreme in this case. They shut the power to the house on and off. They turn on television sets and run water faucets in the bathroom. It’s absolutely maddening. Honestly, in this situation I’d probably die within the first fifteen minutes of the movie because I’d just get fed up and blindly run into the darkness telling these damn kids to get the hell off my lawn.
Another interesting aspect of the movie is that it never really seems as though the home really belongs to Clémentine or Lucas. That is to say that, even though they appear to have been in Romania for some time at the start of the film, nothing about their house seems like a true home. They have what looks to be a huge property, but without the means to keep it up the grass is wild and overgrown. The house itself is also way too big for two people. There are pictures on the wall, but we never get a good look at who is in them, and I would not be at all surprised if there were pictures of people who had previously lived in the house.
So, when the attack commences, there’s a sense that the territory is just as unfamiliar to the inhabitants as it is to the intruders. Clémentine, in particular, flees into the attic and finds herself in rooms that I’m not sure she’d ever actually been in before. As she slinks around a spacious loft adorned with row after row of plastic sheeting, she finds herself lost in a bizarre funhouse maze where she doesn’t even seem to have the home field advantage that usually comes with home invasion films.
One element notably absent in Them is gore, as it’s usually a staple of the New French Extremity films. We get a splash of blood here and there, but nothing to the degree that you’d spot in some of the film’s contemporaries, and I have to admit that Moreau and Palud made the right call in this instance. With such an intense premise, if they had put too much effort into elaborate gore effects, it would have actually diluted the final product. In instances where the protagonists have to kill one of the kids in self-defense, the results aren’t spectacles that allow for a gasp or nervous laughter. Instead, we get a glance at a body before we’re forced to move on as we realize there’s more where those kids came from.
In the end, Them is a movie very much in the spirit of the New French Extremity, yet it’s also one that didn’t leave me feeling like I needed to take a hot shower afterward. One reason could be because I’ve been immersing myself in the themes enough to have developed something of a callus, but I also think that in Them, David Moreau and Xavier Palud diverge from other French extreme films in that they pull up just before they fully crash into the mountain. That’s not to say that the film isn’t brutal or bleak. It just doesn’t tend to wallow in the misery quite as long as some of its contemporaries... but it will make you think twice about buying that cute cottage in the woods near a school bus stop.