This piece has minor spoilers for Amazon’s Them.
Them, start to finish, is a really tough watch.
Them, the latest new ten-part series on Amazon Prime (by way of Sony), focuses on a black family in the 1950s moving into an entirely white neighbourhood. Through the white fences and green lawns, smiling housewives reside quaintly, headed by Alison Pill’s Betty Wendell. What should be quaint and inviting, is a hotbed of outward and vile racism by way of The Stepford Wives.
A Peering Eye
And it’s all magnified so horrifically by the show’s cinematography. Evidently, as an audience member, I have become complacent with how a camera is set up. Your standard midframe and basic close up as two characters talk, through Them are assaulted and pointed at. Them‘s camera is intrigued, almost acting as an extra factor in wrenching up the anxiety and its third-party social experiment viewpoint. If you’ve already seen all of Them, go back and watch any scene involving a conversation between two characters and I will guarantee you that with each new cut no angle is repeated. Purely from an outsider’s technical perspective, I assume this constant refreshing of setups and refusal to rely on the traditional shot, or even to repeat oneself in the same scene must have meant that every moment in between actually shooting took an age, but came with meticulous craftsmanship. All whilst not ever descending in to distracting, or even worse; pretentiousness.
A recent example includes Star Trek Discovery; shot with an intention of frenetic wartime pace but instead coming off as a camera operator with ADD as each camera movement refuses to remain still. Simple conversations become strained and difficult even to watch and pay attention to. Them doesn’t do that. Whilst plentiful, and varied, it doesn’t take you out of the moment ever.
Headed by cinematographer Checco Varese, off of the mega It: Chapter II, his angles seem to warp and manipulate the screen. The camera straight up scrutinizes its subject. We watch from strange fish-eye angles that balloon its characters or from the viewpoints of certain cutlery that make simple cow’s milk look downright… evil
Part Of A System
Throughout Them, there isn’t a moment of let up. The Emory family is subjected to constant abuse – not only from their new neighbours, but through common workplace white dominance, or even the ghosts and ghouls that actually haunt the new homestead that the family find themselves in (a minstrel is a particular moment of ghastly terror, with the imagery alone doing most of the work). It is so extreme that there isn’t a breather, and is intentional: it’s there to magnify and highlight the show’s 50s America. Each new shot suggests the show’s own vapid curiosity at its show’s subjects. The camera gawks and observes as if it were one of the residents of the neighbourhood. Like an irritating child browsing for a new pet in the store, the viewpoint bangs its fingerprint on the glass. It creates a visual environment that almost speaks in fluent systematic racism. Something that is such a constant within this show is that this need to segregate is fluid throughout: it’s relentless.
Even the antagonists are lit and shot in such a perversely creepy way. Going from strength to strength after her TV work on D.E.V.S, Alison Pill’s full moon face with her milk-white skin and fixed Joker smile assures you that something is up. The disenchanted housewife, unsatisfied with her husband and estranged from her parents, whilst living in a bubble with all the other wives are framed big and looming against their imperfectly garish wallpapers and mid-morning boozing. If the Emory family aren’t being shouted at and told to leave or having meetings take place entirely devoted to getting rid of them, then they are whispered about and peeked at from behind curtains in dollhouse-esque windows.
Shahadi Wright Joseph’s Ruby-Lee Emory (appropriately of “Us” fame), so tall and glamorous, starts her first day of school and is framed within a sea of white faces. Even without having to say a word, this young girl is totally overwhelmed and unwelcomed by those around her. The camera work almost goes out of its way to both direct your eye and exclude its characters simultaneously.
A Different Time
As more is revealed of the family (particularly in the back story of Episode 5) we come to understand that both Emory parents (Deborah Ayorinde & Ashley Thomas, respectively) are suffering from PTSD, only amplified and reminisced via their very current traumatic stress just outside the door. The camera, again, reminds you of that, as older (Archaic? Defunct?) techniques return. Figures are seen through point-of-views as they talk directly to us, others communicate via left and right of screen simultaneously through split diopter shots. Personally, I was extraordinarily happy to see more than one zoom in this series.
In the more brutal scenes, amped up and white-knuckle-real, the camera acts as its own sadist, whilst we as an audience, in turn, are made to view through squinted eyes. Otherwise, in a show so reliant on colour, certain screens are bathed entirely in reds (echoing Suspira and other Italian horrors) and murky yellow (the PTSD-fuelled jungles of ‘Nam) – working no less, and not at all gimmicky. Each new THEM title card introducing you to a fresh episode is 70s blood-red kitsch. The font is specifically dated and, appropriately, reminds one of the exploitation revenge pictures of the decade.
In this in-depth interview with the cinematographer for the Go Creative Show (at 6:22), Varese tells of being in conversation with the show’s creator Little Marvin, who said: “I would like this to be a very 1950s traditional, classic look, shot through the eyes of somebody that did movies in the 70s […] using the camera language and the zooms and the distortion of the 70s and the active feeling [… but] with the 90s tricks of the music videos and the 21st Century technology.”
As such, at times I was reminded of In the Heat of The Night, as Sidney Poitier’s Mr Tibbs is pushed so hard, despite being so pure and smarter than everyone else, by an ignorant and backwards American town refusing to move with the times, by way of James Brown and David Lynch. The physical on-screen heat of Heat of…, its tones and its release date all scream of this sort of filmmaking and it’s so valid to see it updated so confidently on screen for 2021.
Fade To Black
Them is one of many in the current wave of black social commentary horrors, following the extreme success of 2017s Get Out. And while both certainly do have similarities, I question whether the more traditional horror elements of this show (anything in the basement, literal ghosts) were simply an afterthought tacked on in an attempt to sell a show marketed as “…like Get Out”. Using another black horror example, Them‘s more ghostly elements come off as Candyman‘s almost spin-the-wheel horror attributes (for further reading on this please read Dani Bethea‘s piece). As the show progresses we are subjected to more and more cliche horror tokens, whereas the series itself is already horrifyingly real enough not to need to rely on such obvious elements of the genre. And as such the finale episode felt rushed and disappointingly watered down as a result.
From a show with such severe balls-out confidence, it’s a shame that creeper shocks almost cheapen the very real message that racism and hatred are happening; certainly in the 1950s, but especially in our current day world.
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Jon Holmes is a writer based in the UK. Alongside his work writing for film, he is a multi-accoladed filmmaker in his own right, and also performs. He can be followed on Youtube at Hans HS and on Twitter on @jonnyjonjon1