Wes Craven Presents They (2002)

on November 27, 2002 by Ray Greene
Pity poor Dimension Films. Six years ago, when Dimension reawakened the moribund teen horror pic with the release of director Wes Craven's "Scream," the genre films division of Miramax had the exploitation field virtually to itself. "Scream" was a self-reflexive and self-conscious exercise that shared with Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" a hip self-awareness, and its target audience loved the film for it. The money "Scream" racked up insulated Miramax from riskier undertakings like "The English Patient" (an inexplicable critical and Oscar success but a comparative loser when profits are tallied against production and marketing costs) and helped Miramax weather an art-film distribution shakedown that drove virtually all major competitors of the period out of business.

Now it's six years later, and the teen horror marketplace has been saturated with "Scream" clones and follow-ups, including the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" pictures and Dimension's own "Scary Movie" flicks, which were send-ups of "Scream" itself, a film that was partially a parody to begin with. Miramax, meanwhile, has had a year so disastrous the corporate balance sheet might make for a good Craven movie, thanks to costly failures like "The Four Feathers." A whole lot (perhaps the current structure of the company itself) is riding on Miramax's costliest art film ever, Martin Scorsese's long overdue "Gangs of New York," and you can tell by the November release "Wes Craven Presents They" that Harvey Weinstein and his baby brother Bob are scared of the future and pining for the good old days.

You can tell because they've put Wes Craven's name on a picture he appears to have had virtually nothing to do with, and then slated the film for release during the same holiday window that launched the "Scream" franchise. Call it sympathetic magic, or a cheap marketing stunt, but Wes Craven's presenter status or no, the grim and dour "They" is unlikely to ignite box-office heat this Christmas season similar to Dimension's past glories, although it is a film that can stand on a handful of technical and performance achievements.

Essentially, "They" is a run-of-the-mill horror movie with pretensions of being something more. Laura Regan is Julia Lund, a psychology grad student with a history of "night terrors" (nocturnal panic attacks); her schizoid childhood pal, Billy (Jon Abrahams), is convinced the horrifying monsters they dimly perceived in visions years ago are coming back to claim them. After Billy begs Julia to meet him in a café and then snuffs himself with a handgun while she watches, Julia (and a pair of Billy's weirdo friends) begins to share in Billy's phobias--and his visions. Are they real, or is Julia unraveling under the strain of her thesis defense and a friend's violent death?

Although Craven's presence as "executive producer" seems like a raw advertising ploy, it makes sense that his name would be paired by Dimension with a film like "They," which is essentially a "Nightmare on Elm Street" picture without Freddy Kreuger. That's a significant omission, of course, but it's a compliment to veteran TV director Robert Harmon and writer Brendan Hood that this fundamentally modest effort is taut and engrossing enough to withstand comparison to a classic genre franchise.

"They" also shares some of Craven's less appealing attributes as a filmmaker in that it is awfully self-serious. The working generation of "old school" horror directors breaks down into roughly two camps: the George Romero/John Carpenter clique, which views horror as something done to us by forces outside ourselves (the space-sickened zombies of "Night of the Living Dead," the knife-wielding maniac of "Halloween") and the Craven/David Cronenberg "dagger of the mind" school, which more often than not attributes horror to internal psychological forces (Freddy is your own repressed subconscious, and can only kill you if you let him into your dreams).

With its persistent psychobabble, "They" is clearly throwing around a lot of metaphorical flummery, and the whole thing can and probably should be interpreted as the descent of an overworked Ph.D. candidate into psychotic lunacy. It's an almost unrelievedly depressing journey--one that might be intolerable if Regan wasn't such a fine young actress, whose own otherworldly appearance (she looks like Elizabeth Berkley crossed with the animatronic starchild from the climax of "Close Encounters") helps compensate for the fact that we never get a clear glimpse of the title critters.

"They" works well enough as a thriller to guarantee a few full-throated screams from the easily manipulated, but "Scream" it decidedly is not. So "Gangs of New York" will hopefully be a great picture that wins Scorsese the Oscar for which he has lusted for so long, and which he probably deserves by now anyhow. But either way, it is very unlikely that Miramax is going to make up for its annus horribulus with the money generated by "They," whether Wes Craven is presenting it or not. Starring Laura Regan, Mark Blucas, Ethan Embry, Dagmara Dominczyk and Jon Abrahams. Directed by Robert Harmon. Written by Brendan Hood. Produced by Tom Engelman. A Miramax release. Horror/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, sexual content and language. Running time: 89 min

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