Ils is an exercise in sustained tension and improbability: it’s a movie that knows that it only needs to make just enough sense to get the viewer from one scene to another.
Based on true events in the sense that people have in fact been murdered before, Ils is a quasi-home invasion thriller that soon becomes a cat-and-mouse game played out across a ludicrously wide and complicated field. It starts, however, with the simplicity of an urban legend, where anything is believable because it’s happening in the dark, in a car, and in the middle of nowhere. The stakes are established in an opener where we see a beleaguered mother and bratty teenage daughter driving home at night. The mom sees something in the middle of the road and, with little time to react, swerves to avoid it. Due to the horror movie law of auto mechanics, the car will now not start.
Now, from the point of view of the titular “them,” it has to be conceded that this plan makes no sense whatsoever. There are far more effective ways of luring in victims than risking your own death through a hit-and-run in the hope that this will leave the driver stranded.
But where Ils fails as a logical sequence of events, it succeeds as pure sound-and-light: this is a movie of well-chosen shots, terrifying set design, and some truly great sound effects. The only part of the mother-and-daughter scene at the beginning that needs to work is the visual of the daughter in the car, her view of what’s around her effectively blocked because the hood is up. She’s listening for her mother’s instructions about when to try to start the car–and then those instructions stop coming. Death, in Ils, is a disappearing act, because the terror the film creates isn’t about the fear of violence but simply the fear of being caught.
The movie then turns its attention to Clem, a young teacher, and Lucas, her writer boyfriend. In the same way that people in sitcoms always have luxurious rent-controlled New York apartments, Clem and Lucas share a massive Romanian farmhouse far out in the country. The Farmhouse of Contrivance is endless, sprawling, and composed almost entirely of windows, inexplicable bedroom deadbolts, two-story attics, and mazes made out of plastic tarp. It’s a beautiful turn-of-the-century murder house, ideally situated next to woods that are dense enough to hide in but sparse enough to not be ideal for hiding in, a chain-link fence that appears from nowhere to protect no apparent property line (just high enough to be difficult for an injured person to climb), and the apparently spacious, Gothic, and labyrinthine Romanian sewer system.
Clem and Lucas have settled in for the night when there are mysterious noises–soon, the car is stolen from the front lawn, and teasingly so, with the unseen driver mockingly revving the engine at them a few times before taking off. They call the police, who regard all this as Someone Else’s Problem, and soon afterwards, the noises and disturbances start up again. This time, some of them are inside the house. A TV is turned on downstairs. A faucet is left running. The power goes off suddenly and is restored equally suddenly. And there’s an ominous clickety-clackety sound that the film gets excellent mileage out of.
What’s fascinating is how long it takes for the threat to really become concrete. As I said, it’s not a movie about violence, it’s a movie about boundaries and ownership: first they take your car, then they slowly take possession of your house. They take away your stability and sanity violation by violation and chase by chase, but the only real physical damage is the kind that comes once it’s all over. Ils designates violence as the catharsis point of horror, the moment where the tension is at last relieved, and then it repeatedly takes it away. It gives the film a nightmarishly unspecified fear. Why are we running? Because we don’t want them to catch us.