[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of our SXSW 2012. It has been reposted to coincide with the film’s national release.]
Horror used to be a sandbox for great writers. Now it’s just a landfill where studios and audiences empty their pockets.
Great horror like The Sixth Sense, The Innocents, and The Others used horror to explore ideas and build a sense of atmosphere, rather than show some unusually good-looking times get chopped up. This is the same place that Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intruders comes from. It’s high-concept horror free of gore and jump scares, but it fails to create a threat or conflict that will immerse horror and non-horror fans alike. It has big ideas to work with, but they aren’t very good ones.
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Release Date: March 30, 2012
Intruders is a bit of a paradox. The film is told through two languages, two sets of characters, and two primary locations but it feels intimate throughout. This is a testament to director Fresnadillo who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Nolan when it comes to building a sense of place and unique tone in a matter of minutes. In fact, his debut Intacto feels like an early Nolan film, though his spectacular follow-up 28 Weeks Later was much more ambitious and free-flowing in its direction. In both concept and execution, Intruders has a lot more in common with Intacto. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.
I approached this film as a fan of Fresnadillo, rather than a horror fan. On that note, Fresnadillo’s direction is as refined and invigorating as ever. The way he sucks you into this world and shows you around immerses you completely. It’s a damn shame then that some shoddy storytelling gets in the way of Fresnadillo’s impeccable vision and a wonderful cast. Even when the film becomes an implausible mess, it is still very easy on the eyes.
At its core, Intruders is a bogeyman story and a fairly harmless one at that. The film follows one family in England and another in Spain who are dealing with the same struggle. They both have a child who is haunted by a bogeyman that the children call “Hollow Face”. The young British girl (Mia) and Spanish boy (Juan) are defenseless against this supernatural intruder that terrifies them at night. Their parents can only hold them and skeptically tell them everything will be okay.
That’s not to say Clive Owen isn’t one hell of a dad. The bond between his character, John Farrow, and Mia is one of the sweetest I’ve seen on film in some time. What the film lacks in genuine scares, it makes up for in some wonderful moments of tension and snapshots of family life. However, this isn’t a film entirely about family so these moments are fleeting and, at times, superfluous.
Intruders may be old-fashioned in its approach to horror but it is still a horror film. This is something it fails at, greatly. The design of the bogeyman is atrocious. It’s nothing more than a shadow figure wearing a raincoat with a hoodie tightened. It just isn’t scary. For the better half of the film, he doesn’t harm anyone; even when he does, it inflicts minimal damage. As a result, it just feels kind of silly. The sound design and direction do nothing to build Hollow Face into a character that strikes fear in me. It not only failed to scare, it ruined the reality being portrayed on screen — little does that matter by the end of the film, however.
Intruders’ third act is full of hard-left turns that will leave some audiences scratching their heads. The film leaves behind the horror altogether to explore some psychological ideas that are interesting but not well implemented in the script. It’s all dumped into the final minutes, making for a perplexing mess. I can appreciate the ambition of the ideas but the notes themselves land flat due to not being properly introduced and built upon earlier in the film. Even worse is the finale that manages to be laughably improbable and confusing at the same time. This is one of those twist endings that people will leave the theater talking about, but not necessarily in a good way. It almost beats out Red Lights!
Fresnadillo is a director with a hunger to tell new stories. He has yet to tackle the same type of film twice. He has also yet to stumble as hard as he does in Intruders. Lackluster plot aside, though, Intruders is a well-made film. The way the music plays off the visuals is a touch of class we rarely get in horror films these days. The movement of the camera, scope of the exterior shots, and originality of the interior shots is a stroke of genius. The film can even be described as music in the way it flows and strikes certain moments. It’s just a shame that it isn’t a particularly memorable song Intruders chooses to play. It’s one free of tension and an interesting coda.