Alfred Hitchcock became a legend via his mastery of it. Few outside John Carpenter have equaled said cinematic skill set. The fine art of suspense has long since given way to slapdash splatter, generic shivers, and an oversized reliance on gratuity and gloom. Few fright filmmakers have even dared to replicate Hitch’s stylized dread. Instead, they keep the fear factors obvious, hoping such an unwelcome overkill will inspire the genre. Perhaps this is why Ils, the fantastic film from French directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud, is so arresting. Offered to American DVD (from Dark Sky Films) under the title Them, this is a grand thriller, an edge of your seat embracing of the more subtle sense of scares.
Driving late one night, a mother and daughter are forced off the road by someone unseen. When they investigate, something horrible happens. The next day, a French teacher named Clementine, new to Romania, returns home to her disheveled manor. Her writer boyfriend Lucas greets her with the usual creative ennui. As the night wears on, they settle in. Suddenly, they hear noises in the yard. Someone turns on their car lights, and then makes off with the vehicle. Soon, the electricity goes out, and the floorboards creak. Someone is in the house with them. Who it is, and what they want, will turn a typical evening into a gruesome ordeal in terror.
It’s a callous, claustrophobic experience, a purposeful subversion of expectations set within a well worn slasher backdrop. We know that Clementine and Lucas are doomed, their logistical fate founded on both the rundown nature of their new home and the remoteness of the property. We sense that something evil is going to happen here even before the nocturnal nastiness begins. And then, when the terror strikes, it’s all implied. There is something inherently unsettling about hearing an unknown figure walking through your home, the knowledge that such a private domain has been invaded by a foreign being. In fact, Ils is a primer on putting such a scenario through as many permutations as possible.
Moreau and Palud also use our inherent distrust of the former Iron Curtain as a means of measuring out the anxiety. Films like Hostel have fostered a common notion of Eastern Europe as a hotbed of amoral debauchery. From killing clubs, to roving bands of equally murderous thugs, the Romanian countryside is converted into an ‘anything can happen’ playground for the most perverse, unsettling games. Even better, the house Clementine and Lucas inhabit has its own haunted precept. We see the plastic-sheeted attic and instantly recognize that nothing good will come from this locale.
Yet it’s the human element that really stands out here, with Olivia Bonamy giving an excellent turn as Clementine. She plays both the studied teacher and terrified casualty bit with an equal amount of emotional heft. While given much less to do except suffer early on, Michael Cohen infuses Lucas with a sad, not quite stoic persona. We just know he’s going to be the ‘death’ of this couple in the long run. Granted, the title card “based on true events” denouement throws us off a bit. It’s not just for what it says about the killers’ identity, but for the entire region in general. We just don’t want to believe that poverty along with a sense of pointless liberation would lead to such a diseased reaction.
It all makes Ils the very definition of a classic creep out, a by-the-book illustration of the power inherent in film. Moreau and Palud are not reinventing the wheel here. There’s no novel twist on the title type or jump into smarmy self-effacing satire. Instead, they rely on the formula to feed their fever dream, and it does so dynamically. While we get the distinct impression that some of the facts may have been exaggerated even before Moreau and Palud (who also handled the screenplay duties) fictionalized them further. Still, for anyone who ever felt their spine go cold while an unidentified sound frazzled their nerves, this movie is masterful.
Too bad then that there’s not more done in the digital packaging department. The film’s low budget leanings are kept well hidden by the DVD’s image transfer, but the lack of extensive context really undermines the directors and their efforts. The Making-Of shows how intense the shoot actually was, but there is a puffy, electronic press kit quality to the insights. Similarly, an overview of how Clementine is treated in the film is more of a love letter to Bonamy than a hands-on look at the production. What’s really needed here is a director’s commentary, a chance for this pair to provide the kind of analysis that will help future fright filmmakers avoid the issues currently killing the genre.
Yet it’s a minor quibble when compared to the final film. Ils is the kind of experience where we become vicarious victims, recognizing that Clementine and Lucas are probably headed for one fatalistic fate. Just like Hitchcock’s heart-stopping masterworks, we become so involved in the narrative, so tied - directly and metaphysically - to the events transpiring before us that it all literally becomes too much to bear. If all you know of this dynamic duo is there awkward American debut, push Jessica Alba aside and give Ils a try. It will make even the most hardened horror fan weep with dread-induced delight.