8 November 2010

Ally's Review: Them

In my opinion, the type of horror that is the most scary... the most unbearable... is the unseen and unknown. The hardest watch is when you know there is something wrong, but you don’t know what it is: you don’t have a handle on what you are up against. A good horror film should slowly increase the tension and not overplay its hand too early. It’s a much more intense experience when you don’t know what the bogeyman/dark force looks like, or what they will do next. Some of the best examples of this are found in [horror club favourite] The House of the Devil... even Jaws got this right (the mechanical shark was impressive for the era, but the sinking yellow barrels were scarier).

Often films make the mistake of believing that some CGI monstrosity is scarier than the unknown, and then you get unfortunate turds like Jeepers Creepers. The French film we reviewed last season, Inside, also suffered greatly from revealing itself too soon. The film begins as unbearably tense: we don’t know who this shadowy presence is, but we’ve been told just enough to know that they are in the house... and it’s a potentially brilliant piece of filmmaking. Then we see the villain fully, we see her temporarily thwarted. The film has played its best hand within 20 minutes and can then only terrify through violence... and more violence. It becomes disgusting, rather than scary. A promising premise is lost.

I saw a trailer for Them on a DVD we watched in the first season of Horror Club and it looked absolutely terrifying. Exactly the type of film that is unbearable to watch. Who were these strange people tormenting a helpless couple in their home? So I decided to bring it to the table with much nervous anticipation...

For the first third of the film I was sure that we were watching a potential classic of the genre. The set pieces were brief, the frights understated, but by taking this approach the tension quickly became unbearable. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the whole film. Unexpected flashes of light, the creaking of floorboards... it was agony to watch. I felt that we were in the hands of a director who knew how to make a film terrifying and tense. The acting of the two leads was very natural, and they are easily empathised with as they start to become more and more aware of the threat they face.

Then we encounter the villains fully. We see our heroes stand toe to toe with - and briefly repel - them... and the film changes. It becomes a chase, and you can only maintain the tension of a chase for so long. When you watch a chase for two thirds of a film the tension inevitably washes away, as does its ability to shock and frighten the viewer. That’s certainly how I feel about it, although others may disagree. All I can say is that I began watching a film that was genuinely scary and I soon became pretty nonplussed: I wasn’t covering my eyes once the film stopped trying to build tension. I knew what the protagonists were up against, seeing the bad guys more and more on screen diminished their impact. If the film had built upon the initial tension and had a shorter chase sequence to end the film, I’d probably be imploring you all to see it. But imagine (for those who have seen it) what The House of the Devil would be like if the final 10 minutes was actually two thirds of the film, or that giant-faced shark was jumping onto the boat for 70 minutes... and you get my gripe with Them.

The film is solid, don’t get me wrong, but I was left feeling a little disappointed after such a promising opening. While I can’t strongly recommend this film, it does have some quality to it - I can’t fault the acting and it is well shot. However, after we watched it I don’t think any of us ever mentioned it again: which is a pretty clear indictment. I did like the very end of the film... it redeemed some of its creepy credentials with the finish (always good to throw in a ‘based on a true story’... even if it’s not!)

On the whole though this film will be filed away under ‘what might have been...’ Strangely this file is crammed full of French horror films. Them, Switchblade Romance and Inside have all failed to deliver on their strong potential. Coincidence? Je ne sais pas...

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