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Hard to believe, but “Intruders” is only the third film from Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who made his bones in his native Spain with 2001’s “Intacto”, before parlaying that into Hollywood work on “28 Weeks Later”, the zombie sequel to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”. For a while there, it looked like Fresnadillo was going to continue his Hollywood streak with another high-profile project on the reboot of “The Crow”, but that eventually fell apart. In-between “28 Weeks Later” and waiting to direct “The Crow”, Fresnadillo occupied his time with the supernatural thriller “Intruders”, a film that has been playing the festival circuit for the last two years, and is now due out in limited release this Friday.
Essentially two tales about the same subject, “Intruders” stars Clive Owen as a dad name John Farrow, whose precious tween daughter Mia (Ella Purnell) begins seeing visions of an intruder in her bedroom. She calls the shadowy figure Hollowface, because, well, he doesn’t have a face. Meanwhile, in Spain, a young boy name Juan (Izán Corchero) struggles with his own nightly encounters with the very same Hollowface. The film alternates between the two stories, though you know that eventually they will merge, and so they do by the Third Act. Until then, we’re left to wonder what Juan’s issues with Hollowface has to do with Mia’s, and through a series of creative writing output by the youngsters, we begin to piece together the villain’s goal: being devoid of a face himself, Hallowface wants theirs. Or some such.
If it sounds like “Intruders” is a bit muddled, that’s probably because it is. Though you’re pretty sure the two parallel stories will eventually merge by film’s end, at times it feels like this might never happen, as Mia and Juan’s separate dance with Hollowfaces keeps going on their respective tracks for a good hour and change. Juan’s issues seem more domestic and mental, with his pressed single mother (Pilar López de Ayala) doing the best she can, eventually even resorting to asking for help from a sympathetic priest (Daniel Brühl). In Mia’s case, the fact that John seems to be able to see Hollowface as well (and on more than one occasion even throws down with the closet-dwelling supernatural stalker) would seem to indicate that it’s not entirely in Mia’s twisted little head. Or is it? But if Mia’s Hollowface is real, then Juan’s is, too, right?
Although Clive Owen is obviously the movie’s biggest name here, it’s Keira Knightley-lookalike Ella Purnell (“Never Let Me Go”) as his daughter who makes a very strong showing. The little lady has those old soulful movie actor’s eyes that belies her age, and her growing terror as Hollowface continually inserts himself deeper and deeper into her life is terrifically conveyed. “Intruders” benefits tremendously from Purnell’s performance, with Clive Owen as the worried father eventually taking over in the film’s second half. In an effort to protect his daughter, John installs security cameras and a fancy alarm system. He needn’t have bothered. Hollowface, it seems, will not be denied. Carice van Houten plays John’s wife and Mia’s mother, and in a bit of a twist with these supernatural stories, it’s the father who empathizes with the terrorized youth and not the mother. In fact, van Houten’s somewhat cold, estranged approach to her daughter’s growing problems seem almost comically cliche in the way adult authority figures in horror movies never seem to “get” it until it’s too late.
At times “Intruders” feels like a family drama that someone decided to toss a couple of supernatural elements into. There are some oddly plotted moments between John and Mia where, if you were to see the two of them interact without knowing they were a very close and loving father and daughter, you might get, well, some ideas. I think that was the point, and what Fresnadillo was going for, but hey, I could be wrong. There are a couple of pretty nifty sequences in the film, like the harrowing moment when John realizes that yes, someone might in fact be camping out inside his daughter’s closet. Again, Purnell is especially brilliant during these moments, able to sell the terror with wordless expressions. “Intruders” is surprisingly CGI-heavy, with Hollowface revealed early and often, which is, once again, a bit of a twist on the genre. The rule of thumb with these creature films is usually to hide the creature for as long as possible. Apparently no one told Fresnadillo that.
Hollowface is quite the persistent villain, and his choice of young victims is disturbing. “Intruders” certainly plays fast and loose with reality, and its Third Act reveal, while probably not overly telegraphed, is easy enough to guess if you just pay attention to the details of Juan and Mia’s individual, ongoing stories. The film benefits from impressive performances by Owen and Purnell, and Fresnadillo’s measured, at times slow-building approach to the material (coming off the frenetic pacing of “28 Weeks Later” this is doubly impressive) is exactly what a film like this needs. Unfortunately anyone going in hoping to have some memorable “jump out of your seat” scares will be disappointed. Slow burn horror movies done right always works for me, and “Intruders” comes pretty close.
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Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (director) / Nicolás Casariego, Jaime Marques (screenplay)
CAST: Clive Owen … John Farrow
Carice van Houten … Susanna
Ella Purnell … Mia
Kerry Fox … Dr. Rachel
Izán Corchero … Juan
Pilar López de Ayala
Daniel Brühl … Father Antonio