<B>Who and what are "They"? "They" go bump in the night: the monsters in the closet, the things that hide under the bed, the shadows that move across bedroom walls. "They" are every 6-year-old's night terrors made manifest. But "They"ought to be a whole lot scarier than they are in this tepid genre offering from director Robert Harmon.

Who and what are “They”? “They” go bump in the night: the monsters in the closet, the things that hide under the bed, the shadows that move across bedroom walls. “They” are every 6-year-old’s night terrors made manifest. But “They”ought to be a whole lot scarier than they are in this tepid genre offering from director Robert Harmon, whose debut film “The Hitcher” set a high bar for screen terror in the 1980s. Stuffed inconspicuously into a crowded Thanksgiving frame after several earlier aborted release dates, pic looks like a holiday gobbler.

“They” arrives on a tide of expectations. Film marks Harmon’s return to the suspense genre for the first time since “The Hitcher” and is the latest release from Miramax’s Dimension arm, which has been the only Hollywood studio steadily devoted to horror/fantasy product for some years now.

Opening with a wonderfully imaginative bit of nighttime-scare creepiness –a petrified tyke begging for the solace of his parents’ bedroom when Prosutian magic lantern images appear on the wall and something shifts about in a closet — “They” quickly goes off track.

Nineteen years later, psychology student Julia (Laura Regan, who resembles a blond Hillary Swank) is having sex with her paramedic boyfriend (Marc Blucas, in a particularly thankless role) when they are interrupted by her childhood friend Billy (the good Jon Abrahams). Billy insists they meet right away. They do in an all-night diner, and the petrified Billy babbles incoherently about something that is out to get him before blowing his brains out all over Julia.

At Billy’s funeral, Julia meets other friends who, like Billy and Julia, all experienced night terrors as young children and are now beginning to experience them again. One by one, they find a strange mark appearing on their bodies. Soon it’s the proverbial race against time, as Julia attempts to crack the mystery before she becomes a victim, while everyone around her — in the most tired horror-movie fashion — starts to think that she’s crazy.

Julia and her branded brethren, however, seem intent on making it ever so easy for those demons to catch them: They creep down dark staircases alone, crawl into air ducts and do just about everything else the audience knows they’re not supposed to do in a horror movie.

Harmon’s atmospheric direction has set piece quality, particularly during an encounter on a moonlit stretch of deserted highway in which the imagery achieves a pop-up-storybook shimmer. But despite a lengthy homage to “Cat People” — one of pic’s best scenes — “They’s” m.o. is closer to William Castle than Val Lewton.

Additionally, Brendan William Hood’s screenplay lacks originality. “They” takes the premise of Stephen King’s “It,” borrows a bit from David Twohy’s “Pitch Black” and incorporates the suspenseless subway car finale of Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic,” while never making much internal sense. There’s also a more-than-passing resemblance to Wes Craven’s venerable “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, which may explain the prominent “Wes Craven Presents” credit at the end of the film and in advertisements (pic’s title card reads simply “They”).

By the time creature-effects maestro Patrick Tatopoulos’ grasshopper-like monsters take center stage, most viewers won’t be scared and some will have forsaken this turkey for their own turkey leftovers at home.

They

Production

A Dimension Films release of a Dimension Films/Focus Features, Wes Craven presentation of a Radar Pictures production. Produced by Scott Kroopf, Tom Engelman. Executive producers, Ted Field, David Linde. Co-producers, Barbara Kelly, Tony Blain. Directed by Robert Harmon. Screenplay, Brendan William Hood.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Rene Ohashi; editor, Chris Peppe; music, Elia Cmiral; production designer, Douglas Higgins; art director, Patrick Banister; set decorator, Lin MacDonald; costume designer, Karen Matthews; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Dave Husby; sound designer, Anne Bakker; creature design and supervision, Patrick Tatopoulos; visual effects supervisor, Kyle Menzies; digital special effects, C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures; associate producer, John Mariella; assistant director, Richard Coleman; second unit director/camera, David Crone; casting, Jennifer Fishman Pate, Amy McIntyre Britt, Anya Colloff. Reviewed at Miramax screening room, L.A., Nov. 25, 2002. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Julia - Laura Regan Paul - Marc Blucas Sam - Ethan Embry Terry - Dagmar Dominczyk Billy - Jon Abrahams Young Billy - Alexander Gould
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