Robert Harmon’s “They” (2002) is also known as “Wes Craven Presents ‘They’” on the poster and trailers, but only referenced once as such in the end credits.
Why does this matter? The Craven name was the main reason many went to see it.
We get a great opening, with a child actor uttering the words, “But Mom…(scary whisper) they come for me when it’s dark.” The opening scene is sensational and taps into our childhood fears.
The story picks up 19 Years Later, as we meet Julia, played by Laura Regan. She’s afraid of the dark and meets a group of likeminded young adults.
It goes back to the something I’ve been telling students in my horror films classes for years: it’s never really a fear of the dark, but a fear of what might be in the dark with you.
In this case, the “they” of the title are slithering, insect-like beasties that devour their victims. On the other hand, we never get a good look at them, as the screenplay, written by Brendan Hood, keeps the threat vague most of the way.
Apparently “IT” (2017) allowed everyone to openly admit that they are afraid of clowns. This, on the other hand, is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about being afraid of the dark. However, if you’re not afraid of the dark and never have been, then this will play twice as silly as it already does.
An hour in, a character says, “This is ridiculous.” Actually, by that point, it is way past ridiculous.
As a horror film about being afraid of the dark, it’s better than the similar, out-at-around-the same-time “Darkness Falls,” “Boogeyman” and “Darkness.”
Made in the age of PG-13 horror, where intensity ruled but violence was either deleted or eclipsed in pixels, “They” is something of a sleeper. A handful of scenes will guarantee a serious case of the creeps.
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Regan’s career didn’t take off after “They” played in theaters, but I really like her in this. Interestingly enough, Regan later played Agatha the psychic in the TV series based on “Minority Report” (the role was played by Samantha Morton in the film).
It helps that Ethan Embry and scream queen Jodelle Ferland is in this, too, though the acting is at the service of the mood and visuals.
Craven may have been the bait to lure mainstream horror fans, but longtime genre buffs recognized the director, as Harmon’s “The Hitcher” (1986), his directorial debut, has never lost its ability to disturb.
Harmon is exceptional at mood and atmosphere. “They” was his second horror film (in between came the 1993 Van Damme stretch, “Nowhere to Run”).
Harmon is currently a favorite of Tom Selleck, as he collaborated with the actor in “Ike: Countdown to D-Day,” eight Jesse Stone TV movies and 20 episodes of “Blue Bloods.”
“They” reportedly experienced a tortured post-production period, as was the case with many Dimension and Miramax films of the era. The few that remember “They” likely recall how it (like “Soul Survivors” and too many others) had reports of cut scenes and alternate versions. It helps that the stunning visuals maintain their power, because we never get a clear look at the monster(s).
Of the films that had Craven’s name on them but had no input from the director, this is better than “Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000,” “Wishmaster,” “Feast” and “Carnival of Souls.”
“They” doesn’t hold up once you turn all the lights in the house on but, while you’re watching it, alone in the dark, it’s scary and nightmarish.
It’s also humorless, with a slow midsection, loaded with exposition but no real explanation. It has the dark gloss of an Adrian Lyne movie but needed the brilliance and focus of Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990) to fully salvage it.
“They” is logic-free and only to be taken seriously like a dream described upon waking. Yet, its’ also jolting and intense enough to work on the level of a campfire scare story.
There’s a swimming pool scene that tries hard but can’t compete with “Cat People” (either version). Likewise, the trapped-in-a-subway station is well done but not up to the one in “Jacob’s Ladder.”
By the third act, it plays like a “Nightmare on Elm St.” sequel without Freddy Krueger, but, instead, an unknown, insect-like threat. Thankfully, the wilder “They” gets, the better.
FAST FACT: The “Wes Craven” label had mixed results at the box office. “They” earned $12 million in 2002, while “Dracula 2000” brought in $33 million. “Wishmaster” generated $15 million in 1997.
This explores how mental illness can be a shared trait among siblings and how our childhood fears don’t always leave us, which is heavy fodder for a teen horror film.
In fact, are the creatures plaguing Julia vague because they’re more the phantoms plaguing her mind via lack of sleep? Reports from the troubled production suggest the monsters had a rich backstory that didn’t make the final cut.
There were reportedly multiple endings shot (including one that reportedly mimicked the conclusion of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”) but the one they went with was clearly the strongest. In fact, that last scene is unexpected, cruel and powerful.
“They” doesn’t fizzle out, it ends with a knockout capper and punchline. As nightmares go, this is akin to that feeling where you know you’re safe when you wake up, but shudder as you recell the details to those willing to listen.
“They” may not linger in the daytime but in the dark of our dreams, it’s pretty scary.