Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

David Moreau and Xavier Palud's lean, mean tension machine, ostensibly based on "true events," opens with a nasty jolt, then restarts itself in preparation for a prolonged, skillfully executed cat-and-mouse game between a likable couple and their unseen tormentors.

Snagov, Romania, Oct. 6, 2002: A woman and her sullen teenage daughter fall victim to unseen attackers on a lonely road. Oct. 7: French couple Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) have rented a cavernous house in the Snagov woods; she's teaching French at a junior high school in nearby Bucharest, he's supposedly working on his novel, though there's more procrastinating than writing going on. They pass a quiet evening, disturbed only by a heavy-breathing phone call, only to awaken later to the sound of music and the chilling realization that someone is outside. Their car is stolen and the lights are cut off: They're trapped in the dark in the middle of nowhere, and they're not alone. Palud and Moreau's setup smacks of slasher-movie cliches at their most reductive, but they manage to do everything right. First they establish Lucas and Clementine as appealing, intelligent characters, then they spook the hell out of them — the call, the car, the lights — and then they set the hellhounds on their trail. Lucas and Clementine don't act like idiots: They call the police, stay together (mostly), keep their wits about them under nerve-jangling circumstances — and it doesn't help. A solid 50 minutes of the film's brief 77-minute length is running and screaming, much of it in the near dark, but it's never dull. The couple's ordeal remains nerve-racking both because the filmmakers know how to ground a chase scene — few contemporary filmmakers have mastered the art of establishing physical space and ensuring that viewers always know where characters are in relation to their surroundings — and because Cohen and Bonamy never allow Lucas and Clementine to devolve into sweating, shrieking meat.

Palud and Moreau have been accused of deliberately crafting a Hollywood calling card rather than a fully realized film, but while THEM did pave the way for them to direct the remake of the Pang brothers' THE EYE (scheduled for release in 2008), its spareness is its strength. There's no time wasted and no showy effects to detract from the situation — just sheer tension.