Them review: Amazon Studios' new anthology is a brutal, unrelenting American horror story

Through its 10-episode run, the series — about 10 days in the life of a Black family who have just moved into the white neighbourhood of East Compton in 1950s California — keeps the horror at fever pitch.

Rohini Nair April 12, 2021 08:01:05 IST
Them review: Amazon Studios' new anthology is a brutal, unrelenting American horror story

The Emorys experience a rare moment of happiness in 'Them'. Amazon Prime Video

This post contains minor spoilers for Amazon Studios' Them.

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Explanations for why audiences enjoy horror films/series/stories tend to focus on the cathartic release that comes after: the chance to experience our fears and anxieties, in what we know isn’t real — and therefore, a safe — setting. There’s nothing remotely cathartic about watching the Little Marvin and Lena Waithe-created Them, from Amazon Studios.

Through its 10-episode run, the series — about 10 days in the life of a Black family who have just moved into the white neighbourhood of East Compton in 1950s California — keeps up the horror unrelentingly, bludgeoning you with rape, murder, mutilation, torture, humiliation, abuse and violence from human and supernatural forces, until you’re like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, a deeply unwilling, immobile spectator. In other hands, you might call it trauma porn, but Them isn’t pandering to any voyeuristic proclivities — you shouldn’t be able to look upon these things that have been done to other human beings.

Similarly, it spurns the use of symbolism beloved of the horror genre, where the supernatural is often a stand-in for more earthly concerns. Them subverts the trope in a sense: racial violence against Black Americans, in its narrative, can be traced back to the Devil himself.

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Them is based on the Great Migration — the mass movement from 1916-1970 of nearly six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North in search of better lives and opportunities. Circa 1953, the family at the centre of this story — Henry (Ashley Thomas) and Livia "Lucky" Emory (Deborah Ayorinde), their daughters Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie (Melody Hurd), and pet dog Sergeant — is also part of this migration, leaving their home in North Carolina to come to California, where Henry has a new job. Flashbacks allude to a grotesque tragedy that may have played a role in their decision to seek a fresh start.

Things go wrong from the moment that they drive onto their street — a pastel suburbia, model of Americana. Their white neighbours gather in droves, like vultures, progressing from stares to a sustained campaign meant to drive the Emorys out of their new homes. Raucous radios, Black dolls swinging from nooses, a lawn set afire, physical intimidation and threats — these are part of the neighbourhood’s playbook for getting rid of the Emorys, who they fear will only be the first of many Black families to move in. The effort is led by the Emorys’ immediate neighbour Betty (Alison Pill) — superficially a Stepford wife, but whose wellspring of bigotry comes from a more complex place.

Them review Amazon Studios new anthology is a brutal unrelenting American horror story

Them's antagonist Betty. Amazon Prime Video

While Lucky bears the brunt of the hate campaign at home, at work, Henry puts up with transgressions of varying degrees as the only Black engineer in his company. Ruby is heckled and shunned at her high school, while Gracie struggles in her new class.

As they face attacks from the outside, the Emorys are at war with their own minds and memories: Henry has PTSD from serving during World War II, from seeing Black soldiers exposed to mustard gas in Army experiments; Lucky is still clearly in the grips of the grief that befell her in North Carolina. Ruby wants to avoid becoming like her “crazed” mother; she wishes to escape (the white perception of) her Blackness. They’re all haunted too by spectres: A gaunt, scarred man in a black hat who stalks Lucky; a severe fictional schoolteacher called Miss Vera that Gracie must mind; a tap-dancing Black man in minstrel make-up who channels Henry’s self-loathing and guilt. And there’s that classic horror staple — the basement of the house — where the monsters of their subconscious gain form.

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Overarching these evils is the systemic violence being perpetrated on Black families like the Emorys. The home their white neighbours want to run them out of is one they’ve paid more than twice the usual mortgage rates on. White real estate brokers looking to capitalise on the influx of upwardly mobile Black families scheme and “flip” all-white neighbourhoods, raise housing prices, charge their new clientele usurious mortgages, even while including then-legal clauses within the sale deeds that prohibited people of coloured descent from owning property — it’s all well-oiled system of exploitation.

Seeing the Emorys exposed to such constant, harrowing misery at every level is the bleakness of a kind that makes bingeing Them a draining experience, to say the least. Their ‘othering’ never lets up, such that the rare ‘safe’ space — a cousin’s home in the Black-populated West Compton — offers an equally rare moment to breathe that is as quickly snatched away. Seeing the world from their perspective makes every threat that much more anxiety-inducing; there’s little, if any, relief to be found. Unfortunately, Them also suffers due to this abundance of horror. At a latter point, when we encounter a psychiatric facility chief with a penchant for lobotomising the Black women in her care, you wonder if there’s any genre staple the series won’t introduce. (It draws the line at creatures.)

As long as it focuses on the Emorys’ grief and the bigotry of their white neighbours, Them is on solid ground. When it moves to the supernatural phenomena — even though there are several frightening moments there — the story is on less firm terrain. The show attempts to create lore around how Satan rewarded and perpetuated racism through an acolyte, but isn’t “the evil that dwells in the hearts of men” vile enough? Betty, for instance, is a far more compelling nemesis than the Devil himself could hope to be.

Strong performances by Thomas, Ayorinde, Wright Joseph and Pill somewhat overcome how much Them falters in moving towards its finale, becoming fairly dull when it devotes the entire penultimate episode to uncovering the supernatural backstory. Trauma porn it may not be intended as, but revenge porn is a different matter. Still, for its keen flashes into the psyche of those othered — the “them” we place in opposition to “us” — this is a series you will want to witness to its conclusion.

Them is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer here —

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