It’s not like the French have no experience with horror in their culture (c.f. Grand Guignol), but horror hasn’t been a big focus of French cinema, oh, ever. That’s starting to change, though, and while it’s a trickle compared to the rivers of American and Asian shock and gore that flood rental shelves every year, the new French horror is characteristically smart and well-made. Case in point: Them.
French teacher Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) is teaching at a Romanian school, and she and her writer boyfriend Lucas (Michael Cohen) rent an absurdly huge, old house in the woods. Directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud have already made clear there’s something to be afraid of out there, and Clementine and Michael soon find themselves under siege in their own home. That’s all the set-up there is, and all that’s needed. Eschewing CGI, spraying blood, and ooky little Japanese girls, Moreau and Palud forsake the hallmarks/millstones of modern horror to hearken back to the spooky noises and unseen terrors of classics like The Haunting, which is not to say that Them’s tension doesn’t explode into nightmarish chase sequences. The revelation of who, exactly, is out there can’t help but be a slight letdown, but the filmmakers manage to get a couple of creepy twists out of that, too.
Them bodes well for the new French horror, though it shares one problem with plenty of horror films everywhere: It’s “based on a true story.” What makes horror films work—the fear of death and dismemberment, the terror of the unknown—has nothing to do with workaday “trueness,” and hammering on the fact that some version of such events actually took place can make a film less scary in the end. After all, what scares us isn’t outside Bucharest—it’s right down the street, or maybe even on the other side of that basement door.