Movies about the profound effects of cold-blooded nightmares on sensitive, impressionable children should not be dull or arty at the expense of a good hair-raising yarn, but a benign horror flick called Intruders is nothing more (or less) than ludicrous, esoteric hokum. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, a Spanish director so unabashedly infatuated with the films of Guillermo del Toro that he even imitates the shadowy lighting and copies the same jittery camera angles as Pan’s Labyrinth, has done nothing to enhance the genre of thrillers that prey on the vulnerability of children and a great deal to cheapen it.
In Spain, a little boy named Juan makes up a story to entertain his mother Luisa (Pilar López de Ayala) before bedtime about Hollow Face, a hideous monster shrouded in a cadaverous hooded cape that rips the faces off children and attaches them to his own blank head so people will love him. Knowing he will probably never get to sleep, his mother Luisa rushes him to bed before he can make up an ending. In the ensuing rainstorm, Juan opens a window to the outside scaffolding to rescue his cat, and sees Hollow Face climbing into the house to wreak havoc.
Cut to a house in London, where another child, 12-year-old Mia (Ella Purnell, who played the young Keira Knightley in the unforgettable Never Let Me Go), has the same dream after finding the beginning of Hollow Face’s story hidden in a hole in the limb of a gnarled and mysterious tree. This time her father, a construction engineer named John Farrow (Clive Owen), tries to convince her the ghoul is not hiding in the dark recesses of her closet. But suddenly Hollow Face appears and attacks the girl—and her father, too. Funny.
Her mother Sue (Carice van Houten) doesn’t see anything at all, and after the police install a video recorder, there’s no image on the film. To kill a monster, suggests Mia’s father, you have to enter its own fable. So he constructs a model of the creature and burns it in the back yard to the alarm of his wife. But the tension only intensifies. Hollow Face returns and more violence ensues. The shock and resulting trauma render Mia speechless. Back in Spain, Juan’s mother seeks help from the local priest, who tries to convince the boy there’s no such thing as the boogey man, but crucifixes don’t work. In England, Sue turns to science instead of religion, but the police and the girl’s psychiatrist suspect both father and daughter of schizophrenia. The action drags along, back and forth, attempting to demonstrate how one primal force can invade and co-exist in two countries with different environments and cultures, but because Owen is a star, most of it centers on what’s happening in London. According to the overwrought screenplay by Nico Casariego and Jaime Marques, when two people experience the same psychic phenomenon, it’s called folie à deux. And all this time I thought it was a French dance step invented by Roland Petit for Zizi Jeanmaire.
With maximum atmosphere, creepy music and a few special effects such as slimy black snake-like tendrils wrapping around the beds of the children while Hollow Face tries to strangle them to death before tearing off their faces, the movie holds interest for a while.
Then it makes the fatal mistake of trying to explain away the two parallel plot lines that smart audiences will have figured out already. The way Intruders cuts between the dual stories you think the action is concurrent. Once you realize the story in Spain takes place 30 years earlier than the story in England and Juan and John are the same name, the “a-ha!” elements piece together. Suddenly John is entering the house of Luisa and calling her “Mother.” No spoilers, just red herrings. (Not to mention the silly inside joke: The tortured Mia’s father is named John Farrow, which is the real name of the father of Mia Farrow, who appeared paranoid in Rosemary’s Baby.)
A really unsatisfactory ending piles on the resolutions with Owen whispering something inaudible into Mia’s ear. None of it honors my feeling that to be truly terrifying, a movie must always be believable, but Owen is such a good actor that he makes the cardboard father more than an enigma. You can see the caring in his facial expressions even when he isn’t saying anything.
He doesn’t fail the movie. The movie fails him. As his wife, the superb van Houten has so little to do or say—so peripheral a relation to everything else in the movie—that she seems to be an intruder herself. It suggests that, like the triumph of good over evil, the power of suggestion can often overwhelm the weakness of logic and reason, bridging generations. OK, but Intruders is never scary, and it’s so implausible and uninvolving that even when it’s being explained, it is still unconvincing. Talky psychology is a poor substitute for supernatural thrills.
Intruders (R) ★★☆☆☆