Nineteen years ago, young Billy Parks suffered nightmares and this night was no different. He called for his mother who came into his bedroom to reassure him that the darkness was nothing to be scared of, and once she was sure her son had calmed down, she left, leaving the door slightly ajar and his nightlight on. But Billy was right - there was something there in the dark, something dangerous that shunned the light and did its best to exist in the gloom where it can capture the unwary. Now, the present day, Julia (Laura Regan), one of Billy's childhood friends, is a psychology student and after a night out with her boyfriend Paul (Marc Blucas) she receives a phone call from Billy which will be fateful for both of them.
They is a deliberately vague title for a horror film, isn't it? The filmmakers couldn't use Them as that had already been used for the giant ant movie, and It was the name of a famous Stephen King novel, so I guess They was the next best thing. Not being able to pin down the threat is integral to the film's chills as its monsters are resolutely kept in the dark both literally and figuratively, being only briefly glimpsed examples of CGI creature creations, but as the opening sequence makes clear, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. And we know that whatever is after the cast is there really.
When Julia breaks off an amorous encounter with Paul that night, she's making a mistake, but she isn't aware of it yet as she thinks she's going to provide comfort to her old friend. Yet what actually happens when she meets him in a cafe is that he rambles, then rants, about something coming to get him and abruptly produces a gun, blowing his brains out right there and then. Naturally Julia is traumatised by the incident, and this gives those around her the reason to excuse her increasingly strange behaviour afterwards. And when she suffers a horribly vivid nightmare that night, she's not so convinced that it was fantasy at all.
As it's not just Julia who can be terrorised, or else it would be an even shorter film than it is already, two more acquaintances of Billy are introduced to her at his funeral. They are Sam (Ethan Embry) and Terry (Dagmara Dominczyk), who seem to be suffering the same problems as the recently departed and wonder if Julia can help. Meanwhile, Julia has a close encounter with the mysterious entities herself while out driving at night in one of those set piece fright scenes that distinguish shockers of this era, and is left predictably unharmed but shaken. Not half as shaken as Sam and Terry, however, when they are captured.
The film has a limited palette to work with, but director Robert Harmon makes quite the atmospheric stew out of his ingredients, all muted colours and subdued acting. Compare They with the truly awful Darkness Falls which was released the year after to greater success, and you'll see a better way to handle this kind of "childhood terrors return" material here, even if it doesn't amount to much. Some of details are queasy, such as the small wound that appears on the skin of the victims to mark them out as prey, and those setpieces, including a Cat People homage, are functional but keep things moving along. And the film has the courage of its convictions, with no clichéd, demon vanquishing finale but a more despairing ending instead. Music by Elia Cmiral.