They boils down to one simple premise: the night terrors we suffered in childhood may linger into adulthood and haunt us again. In the simplicity of that concept lurks the secret to the film's success. Director Robert Harmon wastes no time in offering anything that detracts from that basic concept. Perhaps he doesn't offer enough, which leaves They skimming the surface of our intellect, but the film digs deeply into the visceral heart of our fears.
Other than a good old-fashioned fright-fest, nothing too profound is happening in They, which is both its biggest asset and most resounding weakness. And ultimately, that is not a criticism; in fact, it is a compliment. Harmon, whose popularity rests on his 1986 success The Hitcher starring Rutger Hauer, offers a horror film genre fans will find worth their 83 minutes, and he deftly uses the genre's many conventions to pitch another interesting tent in the camp.
The film certainly benefited from having "Wes Craven Presents" before its title. And the film does feature some classic Craven staples: an obsession with dreams and nightmares, the banding together and disbanding of teenagers and early 20-somethings, and a flair and control of some generally shocking scenes. However, Craven had virtually nothing to do with this film other than providing a rubber stamp. Dimension Films offered a trio of "Wes Craven Presents" films a few years ago that included a remake of Carnival of Souls and Wishmaster and Dracula 2000. Each of those films boasted Craven's name as executive producer. But not They. Nevertheless, it's obvious why Craven approved this one.
The movie opens with a young Billy being traumatized as a child in his bedroom. Nineteen years later, we are introduced to Julia, Billy's childhood friend and a psychology graduate student happily dating her boyfriend Paul. Before defending her master's thesis, she is reunited with Billy, who is clearly losing his mind. A disheveled Billy tells her demons are haunting him, and then he aptly commits suicide. At the funeral, Julia meets two of Billy's college friends, Sam and Terry, and the three soon learn they share one common experience: as children, they all suffered night terrors. As each delves into Billy's diary and their collective pasts, their night terrors, along with some bizarre demons, reemerge to terrorize them once again.
Like the rattle on a rattlesnake, most good film monsters provide warning signs for their victims to announce their ominous presence. After all, that is the least they could do. This popular trait adds suspense and a sense of dramatic irony for the viewer and a repetitive motif that is ironically comforting. We know what to expect when Spooky Happening X occurs. Harmon does this wisely in They; the cries of infants, flickering lights, and other disrupted electronic devices such as telephone lines are all caused by the presence of They.
And who are They? Early in the film, Harmon wisely teases us with glimpses of the demons. He is smart enough to realize that mounting horror that subtly massages and slowly engages the audience's anticipation is usually much more effective than in-your-face gore. But as the film progresses, so does the footage revealing these unusual beasts. Part Grendel, part incubus, part gremlin, and part Gollum, these demons are flat-out creepy. Moving like crab-spiders, they bite their victims and inject them with a splinter whose purpose is not entirely clear. But that is beside the point; these beasts are pure eye candy and spooky as hell. While hardcore gore is minimized, Harmon aptly allows the cinematography to produce the horror. In other words, he shows but doesn't tell.
The editing here is also noteworthy. I have a fetish for films under two hours and a passion for films less than 90 minutes. Pet peeve, I know, but more often than not, shorter films under two hours often prove to be better, most likely because someone is actually thinking in the editing room. They moves briskly through its 83 minutes, and when it concludes, you scratch your head wondering where the past hour-and-a-half went.
Somehow, Harmon avoids directing cliché horror scenes by stripping them down to their primal essence. The fear we feel transcends the clichés we think we are noticing. Here, fear outduels the mind. Harmon also does a nice job of capturing creepy nuances to remind us that reality is more than what our senses dictate. Meandering fog, evaporating handprints, flickering lights, and grimy elevator shafts serve this point well. However, the film runs the risk of concluding with a very popular cinematic cliché: the subway scene chase/shootout (think Them! or The Third Man). But once again, Harmon is able to maneuver around the clichés and offer some original footage.
Sure, the acting at times screams with mediocrity. Sure, the story does have some gaping holes. What exactly do the demons want? Why did they choose to haunt these three individuals? What were their original night terrors about? What kind of boyfriend leaves his lady alone after demons have been implanting splinters IN HER HEAD? And what the hell are They? The list goes on. And sure, the night terrors are just psychobabble for nightmares.
I would like to see more history and background about the demons; they warrant such development. I also would like to see more play with her graduate degree; after all, she is a graduate student of psychology suffering from nightmares. But even with those and other flaws, something works in this film: it's raw, concise, scary, and has some clever special effects. And enough of the plot holds water. Most importantly, They does not pretend to be something it is not.
Of course, as I am writing this last sentence, the lights in my office are flickering.