Director – Robert Harmon, Screenplay – Brendan William Hood, Producers – Tom Engelman & Scott Kroopf, Photography – Rene Ohashi, Music – Elia Cmiral, Digital Special Effects – C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures (Supervisor – Kyle Menzies), Special Effects Supervisor – Dean Lockwood, Creature Effects – Patrick Tatopoulos Designs (Designed/Created by Patrick Tatopoulos), Production Design – Douglas Higgins. Production Company – Focus Features/Dimension Films/Radar Pictures
Laura Regan (Julie Lund), Marc Blucas (Paul), Ethan Embry (Sam), Dagmara Dominczyk (Terry), Jay Brazeau (Dr Booth), Jon Abrahams (Billy), Jodelle Micah Ferland (Sarah), Alexander Gould (Young Billy)
Psychology student Julie Lund is contacted by her childhood friend Billy. He demands to meet with her immediately and then starts to babble incoherently about creatures that live in the dark. Just at that point, the cafe where they sit is affected by a citywide power cut, whereupon Billy pulls out a gun and blows his head off. At the funeral, Julie meets two of Billy’s friends Terry and Sam. They realise that all of them, including Billy, suffered from night terrors as children. After reading Billy’s diary, Sam starts to believe in the existence of creatures that live in the dark and are afraid of the light and believes that these appeared to all four of them as children. As the lights go off across the city, Julie realises that the creatures are now coming back for them.
Sixteen years before They, director Robert Harmon made The Hitcher (1986). The Hitcher is one of the great underrated horror classics of the 1980s and its appearance pegged Robert Harmon as a highly promising talent. Alas, Harmon almost entirely vanished subsequent to The Hitcher. He went onto make a forgotten John Travolta gangster vehicle Eyes of an Angel (1991), the Jean-Claude Van Damme action film Nowhere to Run (1993) and that was about it, excepting for sporadic television work. Indeed, They was the first theatrically-released film that Robert Harmon had made in nine years. He subsequently went on to make the revenge/serial killer thriller Highwaymen (2003).
Disappointingly, for such promise that The Hitcher showed, They is a completely routine and formulaic 00’s teen horror film. Harmon produces a competent range of jumps with half-seen creatures scuttling out of the frame, diving into a pool, jumping out of ventilator grills. There is one spooky moment where heroine Laura Regan goes to the bathroom cabinet and Harmon pulls back on the other side of the mirror to reveal a blackened nest filled with hundreds of shadowy creatures and where the oil that oozes out starts causing her hand to twist around on itself.
Alas, the characters and situations are utterly generic. The teen line-up has zero character depth beyond being given first names. More to the point, while Harmon conjures a number of occasionally sinister jumps, there is nothing that ever pays off, nothing that causes one to sit bolt upright or gouge the armrest of the seat. There is a modestly intense climax with Laura Regan being attacked in a subway tunnel but it comes with a lack of affect that slips you by the moment the scene is over – it meant nothing, the character was never in serious danger, the viewer had no emotional connection to what was happening.
The measure of how bland They ends up becoming is surely in placing it in comparison to The Hitcher. There Robert Harmon set up a series of incredibly intense scenes that preyed on the mind in wonderfully horrific ways – Jennifer Jason Leigh stretched between two trucks with Rutger Hauer threatening to let the clutch out, or the superbly queasy moment where C. Thomas Howell raises what we suddenly realise is not a French Fry but a human finger to his mouth. By contrast, where Harmon let us imagine the worst and then proceeded to deliver it in The Hitcher, They barely even tiptoes up to anything scary. How tame a horror film can you have, for goodness sake, than one that includes a scene where the heroine is given an all-over body search and never even gets more undressed than her lingerie?
The most frustrating thing altogether about They is that the script, which was apparently the subject of numerous rewrites, explains absolutely nothing about what is happening. There is no explanation of who or what They are or why They have marked and are coming back for the various characters in the film. (They was written by Brendan Hood who also wrote the completely baffling The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007), which explained even less about its reality blurrings – although Hood states that much of this was rewritten by Robert Harmon). The complete arbitrariness of much of the film is surely demonstrated by the two endings shown on the dvd – one where the heroine vanishes from her room in the asylum and at the fadeout is seen trapped inside a transparent but impermeable membrane on the other side of the closet; and a second, borrowed from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), where she is revealed to be a patient in an asylum where all the other characters we have met throughout are fellow inmates and warders. They also has a degree of similarity to Darkness Falls (2003), which came out around the same time – both feature people being stalked by creatures that lurks in the dark and can be hurt by the light, while each film also has its characters returning to confront childhood fears.
They is also ‘presented’ by Wes Craven. Alas, while Wes Craven is an excellent director, the label of ‘Presented by Wes Craven’ has proven to be a certain kiss of death to a number of films – The Fear (1994), Mind Ripper (1995), Carnival of Souls (1998) and Dracula 2000 (2000). It should be noticed that, beyond the nebulous label of presenter, Craven has no other credit on the film – not even as executive or any type of associate producer.