At a lean - and decidedly mean - 77 minutes, the suspense-horror hybrid Them by French writer-directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud is nothing short of revelatory.
Them (original French title Ils), which was an audience favorite at the Philadelphia Film Festival in April, is one of the scariest films in recent memory. It is a neo-slasher about a mysterious person(s) who terrorizes a young couple at the lovers' isolated home.
It's another brilliant entry in a recent mini-explosion of horror gems, including Alexandre Aja's High Tension and Christian and Kim Chapiron's Sheitan, to come out of France - a country hardly known for horror flicks.
The film's big secret? It has virtually no on-screen violence.
For all its intense terror, Them is more Psycho than Hostel. Moreau and Palud have ingeniously crafted a truly disturbing, suspenseful film while resorting to nary an arterial spray.
The opening scene sets the tone: A woman and her daughter, who crash their car on a small backwoods road outside Bucharest, Romania, are butchered by a shadowy figure. We're offered no explanations for the assault.
Nearby, Frenchwoman Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) arrives home from her teaching job at the French Lycée in the Romanian capital to join her lover Lucas (Michaël Cohen) at the expat couple's aging mansion just outside the city. Soon after turning in for the night, the lovers are rattled when they hear their car being stolen.
It's only a routine affair, the police say. But just as things seem to quiet down (it's almost too quiet) the couple receive a series of prank phone calls. They are later serenaded by really creepy noises and weird animal calls outside and eventually inside their house.
The inexplicable attack (by whom? A super-slasher dude? A horde of bloodthirsty zombies? A chainsaw-wielding family?), during which the French couple are treated as if they were lab rats in a maze, geometrically increases in intensity right up to the closing credits.
Moreau and Palud's peculiar genius lies in the way they use some pretty wild camerawork and superb editing to suck the audience into the couple's increasing panic.
The filmmakers intensify the fear and disorientation by providing no explanation, no background stories about the characters, not even much dialogue.
Their minimalist approach makes this an efficient, but also elegant, experiment in pure filmmaking.
The film's effect is only deepened once the bad guy(s) are identified: The answer to the who kicks up numerous other questions about the why. Why would this person attack this couple?
The growing dread and disquiet increase once the film is over and you construct a possible reason for the assault, which will involve facing unpleasant truths about ethnic identity, nationalism and class in the West, that bastion of civility and freedom that Romania and other Eastern European countries have been so eager to join since the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Them (Ils) ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Written and directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. With Olivia Bonamy, Michaël Cohen and Maria Roman. Distributed by Dark Sky Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 17 mins.
Parent's guide: R (extreme terror, violence, adult situations)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.