Two films, both with an (almost) identical premise: a young couple is terrorised in their home by unknown assailants. Both are tales of characters isolated by their circumstance, both are purported to be based on true events. However, one is really good and the other is…not?
These two films are The Strangers (2008), and Them (2006).
The plot of both films involves a couple in their respective houses – Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) in The Strangers, Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) in Them. Both couples are facing an estrangement of sorts; James has just proposed to Kristen and been turned down, and we meet them in the immediate aftermath of the event. Clémentine and Lucas are on happier terms, but are both French and have recently moved to Romania, and are finding the cultural adjustment difficult.
Their homes are also both interestingly absent of sentiment; Kristen and James are staying at James’ family’s lodge in the woods – so Kristen (our protagonist) is unfamiliar, and James, having just been turned down by Kristen, is less than happy to be sitting around in the house he’d set up romantically in the event she said yes. Clémentine and Lucas on the other hand have moved into an enormous, albeit slightly dilapidated, house in the woods, and have only been there for three months, making the house feel cold and empty. The production design on the house also emphasises this – large walls are adorned with small paintings that look dwarfed in comparison, and as a result makes the house seem barren. It’s also large enough to be a sizeable hotel; later scenes in the attic show that a reasonably sized two-storey house could fit in it.
The relevant introductions are similar, though different. The Strangers takes a unique approach in introducing us to the characters at a tense moment. It would be easy to play the film for simple-tragedy if Kristen had said yes and then their perfect night was ruined by the violence, but instead, we sit with them through their awkward silences, and to the film’s credit, it portrays a convincing and palpable sense of discomfort between the two. It’s not antagonistic – it’s not like one of them is being cruel to the other, or harbouring too much resentment, but you can feel the disappointment between the two.
Them introduces us first to Clémentine at work. She teaches French at a Romanian school, and it’s easy to miss on a first viewing, but she’s finding it very difficult to adjust. It’s implied that very few of her colleagues speak any French and she outright states that her grasp on Romanian is not the best. When she leaves the (quite palatial) school, we follow her on her drive home, and the film very cleverly shows us that she passes through some poor and run-down areas on her way home, before arriving at her ridiculously large house. Here she finds Lucas, and they engage in some realistic banter that shows they’re happily…together (it’s not really stated if they’re married or simply a couple). They watch TV, they cook…etc.
Although I can commend The Strangers for taking a unique approach, it’s actually to its detriment. While it seems like creating tension between the two would provide a good foundation on which to build the suspense, it actually disconnects us from the characters. We can’t really get invested in them too much – they both seem likeable enough, from what we can tell – but being introduced to them in this supremely awkward moment in their night means that you spend your time being uncomfortable, rather than interested. On the other hand, Them gives us a couple to barrack for straight away; there’s no wedge of conflict separating them (and by proxy, us) from getting straight into the story.
It’s not too long in either film before our villains make their presence known.
Kristen and James look like they might be doing something about their awkwardness, and are in mid kitchen-counter-shag when they hear a bang at the door. They investigate, and see a girl standing on their porch, face hidden in darkness. “Is Tamara home?” she asks, and when they tell her she has the wrong house, “are you sure?” It’s clearly meant to be ominous, (the soundtrack tells us so!) but to the film’s credit, it works. It’s a simple question but it immediately makes them wary, and raises the suspicions of the audience. As she leaves, she says “see you later” and I’m surprised that wasn’t played up in the marketing – it’s actually a nice, chilling little moment.
Kristen and James return inside. However, their coitus was very much interruptus, and they’re back to the awkwardness. Kristen remarks that she’s out of cigarettes, and James springs at the opportunity to leave the house to get her some, but not before lighting a fire for her, which is a nice tender gesture on his part.
Then comes the sequence that stands out as the film’s defining moment; it’s also, unfortunately, the film’s peak before descending into tedious second and third acts.
Kristen is still on edge in the house, following the visit from the girl. She warms herself by the fire to the (diegetic) tune of Joanna Newsome’s Sprout and the Bean, and even tries on the engagement ring James had bought her…before getting another knock on the door from the girl. The girl repeats the same questions, and Kristen locks the door after telling her that she’s already come by this house. She returns to the living room, where the smoke alarm has started going off, as she didn’t open the flue above the fireplace. She bats it down from the ceiling and it crashes to the floor. The knocking continues at the door, only interspersed with the occasional violent thud to make things a little more menacing. Kristen goes to call James, but her mobile is dead. Putting it on to charge, she calls him from the landline, and asks him to come home (she also changes out of her dress and into jeans and a flannelette shirt in the interim). The call with James disconnects, and it’s not made entirely clear if he hung up on her, or if the lines were cut.
Still unnerved, Kristen lights her last cigarette in the house, and stands in the living room smoking. Then, silently, this happens:
This is a truly remarkable moment, and an almost entirely underplayed one, no dramatic sting, no close ups, no POV shots – he simply appears in the darkness without a sound, watches her, and leaves – pointedly shutting the door behind him to announce that he was there. Kristen is alarmed by the sound, and tentatively heads to the door to investigate, discovering the fire alarm sitting on a chair (where she did not put it) and the absence of her phone, from where she left it. It’s the most confidently played moment of the entire film, and definitely the most competent sequence. If you need further proof of this, look to the fact that the marketing for the film relied on it extensively – it’s even the DVD cover in Australia.
We’ll pause on The Strangers there and head back to Them.
Following dinner and some TV, Clémentine and Lucas head to bed. While here, Clémentine is woken up by loud music outside. She and Lucas go to investigate and find that her car is not where she parked it, but several metres back up the driveway. The thief then makes a show of intimidation by blazing the pair with headlights, before racing the car out of the driveway, with Lucas attempting a feeble pursuit.
They head inside and call the police, only to be told there won’t be much help available to them – as French citizens in Romania, they need proper documentation, which was unfortunately in the stolen car. It’s not too long before the power goes out, and they head down to the cellar to check the breakers. While there, the film lets us know that there’s someone in the house in an incredibly creepy way, by showing a flashlight’s beam flickering on the wall behind the couple. It’s not too long before Clémentine and Lucas catch on, and realise that whoever’s taunting them has now invaded their home.
From these two respective points, both films begin a game of cat-and-mouse as their stories, but to widely different effect. Clémentine and Lucas realise that they’re being menaced, but not by whom, and have pretty much one goal only – to escape the house. This is impeded when Lucas accidentally shatters a glass door. The unseen intruder then slams the door against him, embedding glass into his leg and severely affecting his mobility – it’s also nice to see that the limp remains with him until the end of the movie. The plot deals almost solely with their attempts to escape the house and situation, with little to no variation in their goals – it’s only the actions of their attacker that gets in the way.
On the other hand, The Strangers has too many ideas for scenarios the characters can act out, and nearly all of them rely on Kristen and James being complete idiots. Whereas the action of Them is streamlined into a series of set pieces that eventuate organically to the plot, The Strangers relies on contrived circumstances for the episodic situations in the plot to take place.
To elaborate, let me compare specific scenes. Clémentine and Lucas hole up in their bedroom, with their attacker banging on the door outside. Lucas has already had the glass embedded into his leg, and so can barely move. Clémentine decides to look for an escape in their attic, which she accesses through their ensuite ceiling. This means she’s separated from Lucas as he can’t follow. While she’s up there, it becomes clear that the attacker has followed her through an alternate route, and has also sealed the exit. She gets chased around (and as I mentioned before, this attic is HUGE) and seems to have eluded her pursuer. Until he appears, looming behind her.
A quick fight ensues, wherein Clémentine pushes him out of a window (or more accurately a gaping hole in the wall) and he falls to his death. Clémentine is relieved, until she hears footsteps down below, and we discover that there’s more than one attacker – the house is in fact besieged. The assailants race up to the attic and attempt to get her, while she races back down to the bathroom, helps Lucas up and they escape out of the front door and onto the next plot points.
This all works – the scene is tense, without needing anything other than the situation it’s set itself up with. The way Them is shot is also key to this, but I’ll get back to that later. But the film, in a careful sequence, provides the tension we need in a thriller like this, but not at the expense of the characters’ establishment up until now. The second that Clémentine hears a noise in the attic, she drops and hides, only fleeing when the attacker gets too close – but again, she still leaves before he’s actually found her.
In The Strangers, Kristen and James (now both aware of the intruders) hole up in their bedroom, armed with a shotgun. Earlier in the film, when Kristen rejected his proposal, James called a friend, Mike, to pick him up. Mike arrives after the titular villains have started their attack, and in fact has his windscreen shattered by a rock. So, understanding that the situation may be fraught, he enters the house, only calling out to his friends while he’s outside. Once he’s inside, he makes his way through the house, and we see the masked man following him, axe in hand. However, his fate is sealed when he steps in front of the bedroom door and James delivers a blast of buckshot straight to his head, mistaking him for one of the attackers.
From there, after some obligatory punching of walls by James, he decides to go on the offensive and take out the intruders with his shotgun. He tells Kristen to stay inside, which she does for just long enough to let him go into the woods a bit, before deciding to make a break for the shed and the plot-convenient radio therein. As she sprints from the house, she falls down into a ditch and is seemingly crippled by it – she literally spends the next half hour crawling her way around the story.
Very little of this works. First and foremost, the characters are idiots. When Kristen thought she was just being menaced by the girl at the door, why did she not call the police? Why would Mike, seeing the state of disarray inside, not call out to his friends again? As a result of this, he gets shot in the head, and what’s meant to be a tragic/horrific moment is instead unintentionally hilarious. Furthermore, having the masked man trail behind him, axe in hand, is false tension. It’s meant to act as a red herring, so that the shooting comes as a shock because you expect him to be axed, but it’s not established at all before he simply appears – and again, this misfires, given that the villains have established a pretty good MO of appearing where you don’t expect them, but it doesn’t follow their previous patterns of movement.
Then we have James going on the offensive, which would be fine as a plot point if he didn’t then insist that Kristen stay behind. He has no reason to assume that they’re outside the house and not hiding inside, and so his reasoning is stupid. This is acceptable from an idiotic character, but not acceptable as a reason to separate the two; it rings false.
As for Kristen’s tripping in a ditch, it’s a lame way to incapacitate the character. The incapacitation itself is not a problem, as it’s an added layer of tension to have the character less physically matched to the attacker(s) – although it is a bit clichéd. But whereas Lucas’ crippling comes from the attackers actively affecting the story, Kristen is passively hurt by her own actions. It would be fair enough to say, “she’s frightened and not paying attention to the ground,” except that the film could have held this moment off until she got in the shed.
Firstly, it would make more sense and be less of a copout if she hurt her leg while running into a dark shed in a panicked mode and colliding with something she can’t see. Secondly, she’s attacked in the shed by one of the strangers, and it would have a) made more sense, and b) made the attack scene more effective if she’d been injured by the stranger at that point in time.
As it is, while both films start off well enough, it’s amazing how easy it is to just stop caring about the plight of Kristen and James. The Strangers creates a tense and creepy first act that is undercut by poor decisions in the later story – there’s no focus to the proceedings once the strangers make their presence known, and this might have been excusable as a way of suggesting that the lead characters themselves don’t know what to do, if it weren’t for the stupidity of their actions.
The visual style of the films is one of the real markers of the quality. Them knows one key truth and sticks to it: what you can’t see can hurt you, but you need to see what you can’t see. And by this, I mean that the shots in Them are mostly very tight, and limit the surrounds of the characters while still showing the things that are blocking their visual field. For instance, when Clémentine is in the attic, the shot holds tight to her view, showing us the same things that are impeding her field of vision. Not knowing what’s there is what makes it tense, because it also means we don’t know what’s in store.
On the other hand, The Strangers tries to build its tension by using shot-reverse-shots so that you expect to see something when the view switches back. Combine long gaps in between cuts and a slight zoom and you have a technique that works exceedingly well when used sparingly, overused to the point of distraction, and worst of all – it kills both the pacing and the tension. The film is padded out by these loooooong shots that are nominally used to create suspense, but just make the film lag. Re-watching The Strangers (again) last night, I used the 1.5x fast forward for some scenes, and still found myself getting impatient.
Both films end grimly, as has become par for the course in modern horror, and again, The Strangers loses out in comparison to Them, and again, it’s due to its own actions. But before I talk of the ending, I need to discuss the prologues.
Them opens with a mother and daughter driving down an isolated road, arguing. The mother is distracted, and suddenly swerves to avoid a person on the road and crashes the car into a tree. She gets out to inspect the engine, and the POV stays with the daughter in the car. The bonnet cuts the mother off from view, but we still hear her when she asks the daughter to try the engine again. And then, we don’t hear her. No sound of a struggle, she just vanishes. The daughter gets out of the car to find her, but she’s gone. She looks into the trees and starts calling out “Mom?” (well, “Maman”) but there’s no sign of her. She calls out once again, and a decidedly non-maternal voice whispers her words back at her – it’s terrifying. She races back into the car, only to find that the keys are gone. She calls the police, but is put on hold. She rolls the windows up and locks the doors, only to have the assailants outside start using the remote central locking to taunt her. They also pelt the windows with mud to scare her further, and this tense and claustrophobic opening finishes with the girl being strangled from behind, because she didn’t check the back seat. It may be the stock-standard “kill before the main plotline” but it’s a particularly well-done one.
The Strangers opens with two young boys discovering the crime scene in the house. We see nothing except the ransacked belongings in the house, and hear the frightened voice of one of the boys on the phone to 911 saying, “there’s blood everywhere!” – and then the main story starts using the angle of “this is how we got to that opening scene.” To be fair, it’s entirely possible that the film could have ended without the two main characters dying, but with an opening like that, it’s almost a guarantee. And to fans of the horror genre (and therefore the target audience) this results in a foregone conclusion. Had The Strangers opened simply with Kristen and James sitting in their car (the way the main story opens) it would have meant we weren’t waiting to see how they get killed. This, above anything else, means that the second and third acts of the film drag so much because we’re done with the setup and waiting to see the film meet up with its opening.
While the basic outcome of both films is essentially identical in that the main characters end up being killed by the villains (except Kristen survives in The Strangers, because it was absolutely imperative that when the young boys find her, she scream at them to bring around the credits) the relevance of the outcome is entirely different; and sorry to sound like a broken record by now, but Them manages to succeed at this where The Strangers fails.
The final scene of The Strangers (before the closing sequence with the young boys) has Kristen and James both captured by the villains. All three of them stand in front of the couple, and remove their masks (though we never see their faces) and proceed to stab them. Before they do this, Kristen asks, “why are you doing this?” only to be told “because you were home.” Personally, I find that to be a bit of a copout – not in that there was no real motivation on their part other than being evil, which is fine, but that it would have worked better if they hadn’t ever said that it boiled down to such a trivial reason. At the same time, I can see that it’s a reasonably effective line to drive down the absolute nonsensical nature of the killing, and it’s meant to compound the fear that even in your own home, you mightn’t be safe. SHAME IT’S THE TAGLINE OF THE MOVIE!
Okay, it’s only on one of the English-language posters and a few of the international ones, but it’s also included in the trailers! In promoting the film, they gave away its villains’ raison d’être! It might be different for someone who’s seeing the movie blindly, with no idea of its marketing, but it makes the entire plot entirely irrelevant if there’s no mystery as to why they were doing this! The ending would have been a lot more powerful if a) Kristen had actually died, and b) they took that line out altogether. It would have made the villains scarier, because as a result of this motivation, it seems like they were just bored and looking for something to do, and decided on a night of terror and murder. Again – that would be fine, and it’s horrific, but not as an answer to everything that’s come up until this point. I’ll give it credit for one line of dialogue though: as the two young boys approach the house, we see the strangers stop, and the girl who asked for Tamara at the door takes on of their Christian Living brochures. As she climbs back into the truck, the other girl tells her “It’ll be easier next time.’ – suitably chilling and a nice sequel hook.
Them on the other hand works its outcome in through its twist.
Clémentine and Lucas escape into the woods surrounding their house, but are separated by a fence that Lucas can’t climb in his current condition. Clémentine runs, eventually finding her stolen car on a trail. She gets in, and while looking for the key looks ahead of her to see her attacker coldly regarding her.
The film then cuts back to Lucas, as he makes his way around the fence and tries to track Clémentine. He manages to find a series of tunnels that are later revealed to be the service tunnels under a nearby highway. He follows the sounds of her screams, and comes across her being tortured…by two young kids.
The attackers in this film have been teenagers the entire time. I know that on paper, it sounds silly, but it’s not. These are kids who have the reckless abandon to do whatever they want, and in this instance, it happens to be tormenting Lucas and Clémentine. Lucas kills the one hurting Clémentine, and the pair see the flashlights of the entire gang closing in through the tunnels. The other boy who was with Clémentine, who had been trying to stop her mistreatment, tells the couple to follow him, which they do. He leads them to a ladder; first Clémentine goes up, then him, with Lucas following. As Clémentine reaches the tunnel at the top, she hears Lucas crying out, and looks back to see the boy kicking Lucas’ hands off the ladder- turns out he’s not so nice either. Lucas falls to his death, and Clémentine runs, eventually finding a light at the end of the tunnel. A tunnel with a grate on it. She’s trapped and the gang of teens is closing in on her…
In a short epilogue, we see titles that inform:
Five days after the events, the bodies of Clémentine Sauveur and Lucas Medev were found by the police.
After the investigation, the murderers were arrested in the Snagov region. They were between the ages of 10 and 15.
During the investigation, the youngest amongst them declared: THEY wouldn’t play with us.
It would be fair to say this is a similarly underwhelming excuse like The Strangers, except that it works because it’s part of a twist, and a twist that’s foreshadowed throughout the film. There are many instances, but two of importance:
Throughout the film, when the attackers are announcing their presence, or simply to scare their victims more, there’s a strange creaking sound. It’s clearly meant to be diegetic, as though they are creating it, but it’s scary as all hell. In the epilogue, as we see the kids walking past, the sound is identified as a football rattle (or ratchet) – an otherwise mundane toy.
The second is that Clémentine is a French teacher – it’s strongly implied that the kids will be heading back to school post-murder, and the connection of the kids as students is key to the threat. Throughout the film, we see Clémentine struggling with Romanian, but also judging her students. First, she makes them take down a dictation in class (“to calm them down” as she later tells Lucas), an act of enforcing her authority over them by using her culture. Secondly, we see her marking her student’s work, even commenting that “this is trash” in response to one assignment she’s been handed.
Couple her cultural unfamiliarity with her lack of connection with the children, and this is definite foreshadowing that makes the twist make sense. It doesn’t matter if the attackers are not literally her students (for instance, despite the film implying they’re heading to school at the end of the film, it’s also implied that these are street-children who live in those tunnels, which would put them at odds with the salubriousness of the school), because it’s thematically linked that there is a distinct separation between Clémentine and the children, and so the twist works in relation to what we’ve already seen; it doesn’t feel like a half-hearted attempt at finding a reason or resolution.
Some have seen the film as an expression of imperialist anxiety over Romania’s ascension to the European Union, and see Clémentine and Lucas’ professions (teacher, writer) as symbols of the French cultural patriarchy being threatened by the comparatively uncivilised Romanians. I’ll agree that there is a lot of emphasis placed on how run-down Romania is (or at least, where the couple is living) but I think this is done mainly to create a foreboding atmosphere. I’m not familiar enough with the politics of the EU to really have a handle on that as a thematic angle into the film, but it’s possibly another way of reading the movie.
Regardless, the truth of the matter (and the point of this review) is that Them is an incredibly effective thriller, whereas the similarly premised The Strangers is not. I do feel it necessary to point out though that the first time I saw The Strangers, I was spooked – but that disappeared when the movie was over. Them on the other hand, has held up to many repeat viewings and still manages to thrill, whereas The Strangers is let down by tedious second and third acts, and idiotic characters and situations. I’ll be kind and say that its first act is impeccable (if you skip the prologue) and that it has some very cool posters (the ones that don’t spoil things)
And one thing that The Strangers does better than Them is its usage of “inspired by actual events.” Both films claim to be “based on actual events” (as Them phrases it) but I haven’t been able to find any corroborating evidence of this (though if it’s out there let me know!). The Strangers, on the other hand, is a film that significantly uses the words inspired by, and this is true. Writer-director Bryan Bertino has explained that the Manson family, this tragic event, and an incident from his childhood founded the story. The childhood incident involved a girl coming to the door and asking for someone who didn’t live there. The next day, any homes that hadn’t answered had been robbed. So – nice to see that for once, that’s not solely a marketing claim.
Them is a film that I’d recommend to any horror buff. Both are relatively short (The Strangers clocks in at 84 minutes, and Them at 74) and I’m happy to report that Them is almost entirely bloodless – it’s a scary movie, not a gorefest.
And so, having spent far too long on this review, I’m signing off!
See Them. Skip The Strangers.