Romania, in 2002, a mother and her teenage daughter are driving home close to midnight, and the mood is not friendly inside the car. The father calls on the mother's mobile phone to speak to his daughter, but she is too busy fixing her makeup to talk, and in irritation the mother tells him she'll call back. An argument follows which is brought to an abrupt halt when a figure runs in front of the vehicle, causing them to crash; the driver and passenger are unharmed, but now the car won't start and the mother gets out to see about the engine... and disappears, leaving the daughter wondering what to do next and growing steadily more afraid - with good reason.
Nothing to do with giant ants, Ils, or Them as it was known in English, claimed to be based on a true story, much in the way I suppose that The Blair Witch Project did when that was released. Using a slick shot on video look, writers and directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud opt for an oppressive atmosphere over the usual horror conventions of gore that many of their contemporaries employed, and to that end the film could be judged a success, exploiting a certain paranoia that many feel about being in their house at night if they think about it too much.
Most people don't let such thoughts pass through their minds, there's no point in freaking yourself out after all, but here the two main characters are justified in their concern. After the prologue which establishes that there are bad people out there in the Romanian darkness, we move forward to follow the story of Clémentine (Olivia Bonamy), a French schoolteacher in Bucharest. She lives in an echoey country house in the countryside, and as the weekend is here, she settles down with her writer boyfriend Lucas (Michaël Cohen) for a quiet couple of days. Some hope. One thing about the location is that it's somewhat disorienting, difficult to get a handle on the exact geography of the place which is in the film's favour when the characters are running through and hiding around it.
The chief strength of Ils is its simplicity, although it does feel loosely assembled in the lead up to the suspense sequences that make up the latter part of the running time. There's a lot of watching the couple winding down after their day before the chasing begins, but eventually Clémentine takes a phone call in the middle of the night that has nothing on the line but a distant, garbled sound. She thinks little of it until she wakes up in the middle of the night convinced she's heard someone outside, although peeking through the curtains doesn't prove anything one way or the other. Nevertheless, she rouses Lucas and they start skulking about the house - then notice their car has been moved. From then on the tension never lets up, with the hooded figures terrorising them but only afforded brief glimpses, and it's very well handled. That said, you may be left underwhelmed by what is essentially an extended short as it's barely over an hour long. Music by René-Marc Bini.
[The Region 2 DVD has many featurettes as extras, but you're best to avoid the extras menu until you've seen the film because one pointless featurette (she doesn't even have a French accent!) gives away the ending.]