If there's a warning sign to avoid certain modern horror films, it is probably the accursed moniker "Based on a True Story" or its cousin "Based on Real Events." Time and again, screenwriters and directors think the suggestion of truth in their bloated and cliched melodramas will be enough to scare the audience. Rarely does that turn out to be true. One exception I can think of in recent years is The Strangers, which claimed to be based on real events. Whether it happened or not, the level of suspense, inventive staging, and tight screenplay resulted in a strong little home invasion horror film about a couple being tormented by a trio of masked strangers in a bizarre game of cat and mouse. Everything, down to the sound design and set decoration, worked to the advantage of the film. Stranger still, The Strangers may have unintentionally copied another "Based on Real Events" horror film, Ils, or Them, depending on which release you have access to.
Ils is a French horror film featuring two different home invasion scenarios. The dry opening, only preceded by the factual basis screen, sees a mother and daughter stranded in a broken down car. They are fighting with each other over stupid teenage drama. The mother steps outside to try and restart the engine, only to disappear under mysterious circumstances. You can guess what happens next.
Ten minutes later, we enter the real plot. Clementine is a new French teacher at a Romanian school. She is going to spend the weekend alone with her boyfriend, Lucas, in a remote woodland estate. The house is gigantic and protected by a large wrought-iron fence. In the middle of the night, they hear their car turn on; masked strangers have shown up and stolen it. The couple left all their home and vehicle ownership papers in the car so the police will not show up in the middle of the night to help them. Unfortunately for the couple, the strangers were out to get them, not their car.
The biggest strength of Ils is the sound design. The noise created by the mysterious strangers is key to building suspense in the film and the sound design sells it. The criminals use a series of clicks, whistles, and animal calls throughout the picture and you, as the viewer, never know where they'll come from next. It's not just the sounds themselves, but how organic they sound. I never doubted that these were sounds created by people or produced in either a dense forest or a cavernous manner. While things that go bump in the night is a horror film mainstay, Ils avoids cliche-territory by using the sounds not for cheap frights but genuine purpose.
Unlike the American version The Strangers, Ils does not have a particularly well thought-out house design for the home invasion sequences. The manner in the woods is just too big. New rooms are introduced every five or so minutes. It's an infinitely growing space that cuts away from the tension. Once the new room is established with its limitations, the suspense picks back up. The result is a segmented experience that could have had a much better arc dramatic arc in a smaller house.
The chase sequences are of particular note. Ils is a much more aggressive film, with the mysterious strangers actually attacking Lucas and Clementine throughout the film. They'll slam doors into Lucas while he's walking around with a sharp object, or swing a 2x4 at Clementine in the attic. The film is not afraid of breaking the suspense with physical contact and, to its credit, each of the action sequences is more thrilling than the last.
Ils is never more chilling than when it reveals the true nature of the strangers in the final scene, combining the facts of the real case with the narrative of the film. I had trouble sleeping that night when everything finally came together for me. All these little details that were so important at the beginning of the film, including that seemingly unrelated opening sequence, come into focus after this reveal.
If you like home invasion horror, you'll probably enjoy Ils. If you want a good scary film, crank up your surround sound system (or your DVD/BluRay-simulating equivalent) and get ready to be unnerved by the sound design. That alone is worth watching it for.
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