Ostensibly based on a true story, the film plays primarily on fears of displacement. First, the universal fear of being in a foreign place. Lucas and Clementine, the French couple, are already estranged from their Romanian surroundings. Although Clementine is a school teacher, she has difficulty with the language and is somewhat resentful of her students—in other words: normal. And if living in a large, cavernous home deep in the countryside weren’t enough, the film hints at a impossible, bureaucratic police department: either you’re put on hold until you’re dead, or you just don’t have the correct paperwork—and no less dead.
The second displacement is a more bourgeois, though no less effective: the fear of home invasion. And here is where the film works with brutal force. At first, the mysterious assailants simply frighten the couple: cutting off the power, turning the television on and off. But as the attacks grow more violent and begin to come from all directions, the safety of home becomes the inverse: the mechanisms used to keep the external world out (locks, shutters) are used against the couple, as their options for escape become increasingly limited.
The tension in the film never relents. Once night falls, the film hits its go-go-go stride, and the action doesn’t relent until daybreak (and not even then, really). The camera rarely stops to linger; instead, directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud keep things constantly in motion. Careful, judicious use of sound—primarily silence—provide much of the creepy, restless feeling: it's one thing to jump because of a loud noise on the soundtrack; it's another altogether to be feel the same nerve-wracking fear that the protagonists feel as they strain to hear something—anything.
The directors owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the original home invasion nightmare (unless you count Lady in a Cage or Wait Until Dark—and why wouldn’t you?). Obviously, Them has none of the postmodern conceits of Funny Games, and the sadism is ratcheted down a notch. As well, the pacing differs: Funny Games excels in delivering long, excruciating suspense; Them, on the other hand, rarely gives you time to catch your breath. But films share, however, a bleak worldview. The motives of the attackers in both films is eerily similar, and while the identity of the omnipresent, hooded figures in Them isn’t revealed until later, the dual revelation of both the “who” and “why” provides a well-placed gut kick. Remember how I said that French horror films have placed their hope in the new generation? I may have to revise that…