There’s a world going on Underground



ILS (THEM) is a recent French horror movie by David Moreau and Xavier Palud that Fiona was keen to see (I’m blaming her) and which she grabbed when it came into the charity shop she works at. (Moreau and Xavier are both EXCELLENT names if you’re going to make a horror film, by the way.)It’s elegantly made, building suspense out of long handheld probes into darkened corridors as a French schoolteacher and her partner are terrorised by intruders in a Romanian country house.

The sound design is fantastic and there are plenty of scares: “I don’t like it!” Fiona cried at intervals, as tension mounted. Later we heard that our friend Nicola took her partner to the cinema to see it and had to leave because he was too scared. It is pants-wetting stuff.

It’s also racist stuff: there seems no reason for it to be set in Romania except to “justify” the appearance of unmotivated psychopaths. Eastern Europe seems to be getting the villain treatment a lot, even as Hollywood invades the place with superproductions in search of cheap labour.

The film actually gets less scary as it goes on, because they leave the house and there’s just not the intensity of terror in open air. The home invasion theme is so strong, I don’t know why they didn’t milk it for the whole movie (it’s only 75 minutes long!) — one answer may be that the filmmakers are just not that good at plotting, and couldn’t come up with variations of the siege situ. It’s one of those films where the protagonists are always doing really stupid things, like NOT phoning the police when they have the chance, which does admittedly energise the audience and get them shouting at the screen, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be more compelling, long-term, if the characters did the smart thing and STILL got in trouble.


After skulking around in the bushes for a while, the movie heads underground, and the locations are impressive as we descend down a Lost-style shaft and into a labyrinth of subterranean concrete, eventually getting trapped against a grill that looks out onto a motorway. By the way, I’ve been in one of those tunnels you see under the motorway embankments and it wasn’t connected to any labyrinth but listen

— in movies, all the tunnels are connected, because they burrow throught the celluloid and into the underfilm, where all the tunnels are connected, and at any turning you might come face to face with Erik the opera house phantom or a stop-motion cyclops with goat legs that he never had in the myths or the blind pit ponies that we were meant to care about as kids in ESCAPE FROM THE DARK because all the tunnels are connected.


4 Responses to “There’s a world going on Underground”

  1. Anti-Eastern European racism is part of horror folklore. Like Dracula is essentially about Imperialist Britain’s fears that their women would find Eastern European princes sexier than their plain-to-earth hubbies. The opening parts of Stoker’s book describing Transylvania as being backward, the people being like children is trademark colonialist anxiety. Even if the British characters don’t seem to be any more rational than them. ”Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is a rare case where a writer set the horror story in London. Of course the book is more complex than that. It just works a familiar tradition that’s all.

  2. Of course horror often uses an anxiety about difference of one kind or another, which is why Stephen King’s point that horror is inherently somewhat conservative may be a sound one. In Frankenstein, everyone is “foreign” so it has no real effect, but the book is about fear of scientific progress, inspired by experiments in Europe at that time.

    But a fear of Eastern Europe seems especially misplaced and weird right now, since what we see in the world is the West predating upon and exploiting these weaker countries, especially with sex trafficking. So to do all that AND demonise them is a bit much.


    The thing I hated the most about Ils wasn’t entirely the racist undertones but the shock reveal of the children as the real monsters of the piece coupled with the “based on a true story” guff that felt really pernicious stuff. This is true story in the way that The Perfect Storm and Open Water were true stories…i.e. embellished with obvious flights of fancy! (As an aside I’m always wary of films that need to trumpet that they are based on ‘real’ events because I see it as an pre-emptive mention that the audience is not allowed to judge using the criteria we bring to other films because they somehow have an extra outer shell of ‘truth’ to shield them from criticisms of lazy storytelling or ludicrous plotting. The films mentioned above all push the definition of ‘based on a true story’ to its limits by adding a hefty dose of conjecture and to me are no more based on truth than Jaws is a true story because sharks exist and sometimes eat people! That doesn’t mean that the films can’t work on the pure entertainment level of something like Jaws but I get the feeling that the use of the “based on a true story” moniker alludes to pretensions that this is ‘more than’ entertainment, but which actually is an excuse for lackadaisical storytelling!)

    I’m not against the use of children as figures of evil or menace – I love Village of the Damned, The Innocents, The Omen (though not The Exorcist, for different reasons), but felt that Them took the evil of children for granted in a highly disturbing way, as if it was unquestioningly regurgitating the sum knowledge of a thousand tabloid scare articles. It turned the film from having any comment on the way children are portrayed as violent hoodies into more of an enabling device to let the audience say to themselves “my, aren’t children today horrible?”

    I’m not sure how much this attitude was consciously undertaken by the filmmakers themselves (I think keeping the ‘reveal’ of the children as a shock twist contributes to raising all these issues in the most dangerously superficial manner and then leaving them hanging there as if they were meant to act as a comment on society. Something like Eden Lake, which you might expect me to have more problems with, seems a little fairer by being more upfront about showing its gang of torturing children then has the time to develop the kids beyond just being a psychopathic Daily Mail hoodie gang into something more complicated and slightly more realistic about gang relationships and peer pressure, along with uninterested parents – there is time to three dimensionalise the kids somewhat. Plus being an unpretentious ‘pure’ horror film works in its favour.

    I’ve been relatively underwhelmed by the recent French horror renaissance, though no film annoyed me to the same to the same extent as Them. While Switchblade Romance’s twist was ludicrous and destroys the logic of the film the more the viewer thinks about it, that seemed just a dumb move to try and surprise the viewer and add another gory grand guignol sequence rather than trying to act as a social comment about the psychopathic tendencies of spurned lesbian friends!

    (I did quite enjoy Inside more recently – still ludicrous but enjoyable with an impressively unhinged performance by Beatrice Dalle!)

    The thinness of Them ends up working against it as the film is stripped down so much it looks cynical in construction, which when coupled with hot button topics child gangs and the current fad of using East European countries as hotbeds of depraved killers, makes it one of my worst films of the decade so far! (Ranking up there with Ma Femme est une Actrice!)

    I can only hope for the Michael Haneke remake!

  4. I agree — and I would question whether Ils actually has ANY basis in fact. Are they not just doing a Fargo?

    The stripped-down thing would be fair enough, but then it should stay in the house and exploit its possibilities. Instead they escape all too easily and the tension dissipates.

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