Ils (“Them”) is another recent bit of cinematic nastiness from France, and worth a look from horror fans. Lucas and Clémentine are, respectively, a writer and a teacher who have recently moved to Romania. Their house is big and isolated, and one night, intruders close in, leading to a grueling night of terror. If that sounds like a pretty simple plot, it is, but the film is very tight (a mere 73 minutes long), essentially functioning as one long suspense set piece once the home invasion begins. The DVD boasts solid picture and sound, but has no subtitles, forcing non-French speakers to contend with the English dub. Fortunately, much of the film is devoid of dialogue, so this isn’t a deal breaker.
All right, I’ve been a little coy as to what this column is going to be about, and that’s deliberate. I’m going into some spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the film, stop reading now, and come back some other time.
For those of you who are still here, you will have no doubt discovered that the film is actually part of a recognizable horror subgenre: Evil Kids. These films can be supernatural (The Omen, Children of the Corn), psychological (The Bad Seed, Ils) or even partaking of science fiction (Village of the Damned). Ils gets an extra kick not only for its utter bleakness, but for purportedly being based on a true story. The utter amorality of the kids – for them, the murders are simply part of playing a game – is bone-chilling.
What need are these stories fulfilling in their audiences? On the one hand, there’s one of horror’s most time-honoured and effective tactics: the corruption of innocence. Its corollary is innocence being threatened – think about how many horror stories feature children in one way or another. With the Evil Kids film, instead of our most vulnerable members of society being under threat, our supposedly most innocent members turn out to be anything but innocent. Quite apart from being a reversal of expectations (however absurd – anyone who has been a child in school, and that’s most of us, I’m guessing, knows how utterly evil kids can be), there is also, I suspect, an element that confirms the worst surmises of the adult viewers. Children, after all, are Other: they are not the same as us, no matter how intimately we are linked. They don’t think the same way as adults do. They can be mysterious and frightening. Every generation looks at the one coming up behind it with a certain degree of suspicion and fear, and these films play on that suspicion and fear, as the coming generation not only represents a threat to the established one’s dominance, but also is a reminder of lost youth, and thus inevitable mortality. So there is something almost comforting, one might think, in having one’s suspicions backed up by the likes of Ils.
The film’s “based on a true story” claim is thus a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it serves to frighten the audience by taking away the “it’s only a movie” dodge. Viewers are left all the more unnerved by thinking, “This really happened. There really are kids like this.” On the other hand, those same viewers, who might well have been thinking dark thoughts about youth crime and the like, will be told, “You are right to think as you do. No need to feel guilty about it.” This is called having your cake and eating it too. Films have been preying on this and other cultural anxieties from the get go, and this particular one has been around at least since the whole juvenile delinquency terrors of the 50s. Horror films just take the jabbing at the panic button to the next level.
So for an interesting double-bill sometime, pair up Ils with Thirteen, and tell me you don’t see some very similar thematic concerns.