The latest horror anthology series to hit our small screens comes courtesy of Amazon Prime Video, with the basis of exploring terror in America. In a similar vein to Jordan Peele’s films Get Out and Us, along with Misha Green’s Lovecraft Country, this ten-part show mixes horrific supernatural horror with a biting commentary on racism across the pond. While this features a number of vitally important messages, Them is certainly one of the most tense and difficult shows I’ve watched in a long time – buckle up for a jumpy ride.
Created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe, season one of Them follows the Emory family in the 1950s. The African-American family move from North Carolina to the all-white neighbourhood of East Compton, California during The Great Migration, but receive a less than warm welcome as they arrive at their new home. Along with facing racial abuse and physical threats from neighbours and co-workers, the house is also a hive for deadly supernatural forces who seek to turn the family against each other.
Incorporating a balance of haunted house elements and the real-life horror of racism, similar to Lovecraft Country’s third episode “Holy Ghost”, Them unravels as an unnerving and at times uneven watch. Arriving at a manicured neighbourhood complete with Stepford wives and blue-collar husbands, there’s an instant uneasiness to the location. Alison Pill’s cruel Betty Wendell is the main driver behind the unrelenting attempts to chase the family away, in order to keep the neighbourhood a pristine all-white paradise. But the verbal and physical attacks don’t stop there, as both children experience it at school while Henry (Ashley Thomas) is subjected to discrimination at his engineering job. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, eldest daughter Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is met by a whole classroom of kids grunting at her and yet she’s the one who receives the detention slip, not her bullies.
This is a fantastically produced show with a number of standout performances, but at times it was just too much to watch. I genuinely had to take breaks from the show as it was such a hard-hitting and relentless narrative, featuring all too claustrophobic scenes which often shift into brutal violence and torture. At times the real-life racism is every bit as shocking and horrifying as the twisted, more supernatural elements. When we finally learn what happened in North Carolina through a heartbreaking flashback, the deed is truly sickening and one of the toughest scenes I’ve watched in a TV show. What the Emory’s endured will stick with me for a long time.
Towards the end of the season, the gripping, racially charged narrative evolves, incorporating more of the supernatural horror elements to feel much more like American Horror Story territory. The creepy atmospheric scenes feature plenty of jump scares and unsettling zoomed in shots, as terrifying figures who lurked in the basement and background come to the forefront. Personally I feel that the weighty impact of the real-life horrors is somewhat lost amongst this shift, but thankfully the brilliant central performances help ground the sometimes inconsistent tale.
Each of the family members are given their time to shine, with Deborah Ayorinde’s Lucky proving the real heart and soul of this first season. She never gives up throughout her grief and trauma to fight for her family, with Ayorinde bringing a real tenacity and admirable drive to the role, while Ashley Thomas adds a proud but vulnerable nature to father Henry. Following her fantastic performance in Picard, Allison Pill almost steals scenes as the villainous Betty Wendell, who’s outwardly perfect persona, like her wallpaper, is cracking at the seams. However, there is a significantly questionable twist with the character, which does lead me to wonder whether she’ll be returning for season two.
The gripping narrative and standout performances are also complimented by a hugely stylistic production and inspired soundtrack. Beautiful camerawork highlighting quaint 50’s aesthetics is juxtaposed with strikingly horrific scenes in an artistically unique series. The costumes are also particularly impressive, along with the editing style complete with split screens and fades, resulting in a Hitchcockian feel. The unnerving visuals are also complimented with twisted takes on classics such as “Ready or Not Here I Come”, often adding a dark humour or despair to scenes.
In a divided America following Trump’s hatefully charged campaign to “make America great again”, Them feels like an all too timely nightmare. The bold script and engaging concept pulls no punches in its damming indictment of racial hatred which is embedded in the fabric of the land, but with so much trauma and pain explicitly featured, Them results in a discomforting and horrific watch.
The ten-episode Amazon Original series launches exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 9th April 2021.