There’s always that creepy moment when you’re falling into bed and subsequently into sleep that a creak in the house or the noise outside distracts you, awakens you, even frightens you if only for a moment. Unfortunately for the characters in 2006’s Ils (a.k.a. Them), these noises and occurrences can’t be ignored especially when cars are taken, the power’s turned off, and the belief in the mentality of “there’s nothing out there” is at an all-time low. The characters in question are schoolteacher Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and her lover Lucas (Michaël Cohen), who seem to live comfortably in the seclusion of their house amidst the woods, recently moving from Romania to France. That is, until the night that the terrorization by “them” begins, and the movie nearly instantly swings into a full-fledged exercise in sustaining suspense.
This is in fact the biggest complement I can give to the French writing/directing combo of David Moreau and Xavier Palud, who work very gracefully to ratchet up the tension for the vast majority of the film’s slimmer than 80 minute running time. Much of this has to do with the house itself, the wide rooms, the high ceilings, and the hallways with endless doors that provoke feelings that nowhere is necessarily safe, someone could be anywhere, and what exactly is the extent of this infiltration? Ils is that great example of hearing and not showing, the echoes of the villains’ steps and noisemakers efficiently scaring us (along with the characters of course) without actually showing these attackers, just the anguished faces of the increasingly uneasy Clémentine and Lucas.
The abandonment of this method also works, however, in using cinematographic aspects to really show us the lengths these mystery figures will go to toy with the unsuspecting couple. Several times, the camera will follow our protagonists as they transfer rooms, and as the camera tracks, we see in the background a still hooded figure and realize that they’re not going to be any better off in the next room, for “them” are everywhere. Even scenes like Clémentine’s navigation through a room of tarps as Lucas’ anguished cries echo below unfold further into this fear of the unknown: Clémentine navigating in the dark, eventually chased; Lucas (not shown, only heard) alone and in pain; and “them,” who by this point seem to have taken total control of this house. The avoidance of cross-cutting to craft the scares here is a true breath of fresh air, instead leaving us grueling in the wonder of Lucas’ situation. This implication through simple, but chillingly effective sound and image is the main reason why Ils is at least fundamentally a very well-executed piece of horror cinema.
While Ils moves along briskly and, for the most part, avoids falling into certain clichés (haven’t we learned by now that splitting up is usually ill-advised?), it still would have been better off without a few additions in post production, one being the score, which, in my experience, was too much of an emotional cue, instead feeling that the movie worked best when we were fully immersed in the world of the film. Ils worked best when there was nothing there to overwhelm those all too audible creaks and desperate, hurried steps against the house’s old wood.
It’s hard to divulge too much information on Ils’ other flaws without exposing the surprises that make the film tick But one of them would have to be the fact that the flimsy “true story” basis seems more like distracting gimmick than advancement for the things that make the central story frightening or intriguing. This, combined with the eventual, disappointing (though innovative) revelation of “them” makes for some awkward storytelling that doesn’t really benefit how the film might fare on multiple viewings. You could say in some ways it creates an irony as to the things we’ve been made to fear, our expectations against what “them” actually are, but this sudden change can only really help Ils on the initial viewing. However, when the first viewing is as refreshingly minimalist, brisk and suspense filled as Ils, the subsequent viewings begin to matter a little less, thoughtful horror devoid of excessive gore for terror instead insisting on real technique, making the thought of “them” much more terrifying than reality of “them” could ever actually be.