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Primal fears played upon by 'Them'

September 21, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Among movie fright-fans, one of the most currently fashionable varietals is French horror. Seemingly inspired by the art-directed aeries and commercial instincts of Luc Besson, this new group of Gallic gorehounds fashions films that are always stylish, often spellbinding and sometimes very scary. While some tend to be more flash than substance, the film "Them" is surprisingly tight, efficient and economical, conjuring a super-creepy atmosphere and incredible tension seemingly out of nothing at all.

Written and directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud, "Them" begins with a neat bit of trickery that might make some moviegoers think they've entered the wrong theater, as a Romanian mother and daughter bicker on a darkened nighttime road. (Apparently it's not just Eli Roth's fevered imagination that conjures Eastern Europe as a repository of psychic rupture and violent discontent.)

The connection to the main action becomes apparent soon enough, as a French couple are terrorized in the country house they share outside Budapest. The who and the why of the film remain its motivating mystery as the what of what happens to the couple builds to an ever-increasing level of pressure and shock. Chased through the house by an unseen attacker (or attackers), the couple find themselves thwarted at every turn. Eventually, answers are revealed, but perhaps the only thing more disturbingly unnerving than not knowing who is attacking this couple is actually finding out.

Moreau and Palud have already been drafted by Hollywood, directing the upcoming remake of the Pang brothers' "The Eye" with Jessica Alba and Parker Posey (ruminate on that pairing for a moment), so if "Them" was meant only as a calling card, it worked. Though they don't quite reach the levels of intellectual sophistication of Michael Haneke or David Cronenberg, both masters of making films that operate on multiple levels of generic fun and skillful rigor, Moreau and Palud have crafted a fine, smart entertainment.

Often in "Them" a moment of real suspense is created from very little -- a flickering light, a closed door or an infernal noise that just won't stop -- causing one to constantly reassess exactly why the film is as effective as it is, and rethink what is so darn upsetting. Moreau and Palud play on the way our minds fill in the gaps of the unknown and the very primal fear of things going bump in the night.


"Them." Unrated. In French and Romanian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (323) 848-3500.

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