REVIEW: Not-So-Spooky Intruders Preys On, and Over-Psychoanalyzes, Childhood Fears

Movieline Score: 6

A movie about childhood nightmares that plays too much like an actual, incoherent nightmare to make a good movie, Intruders is a psychodrama divided against itself. Little kids don’t need a reason to get worked up about what’s in their closet, or to be told to worry. When it comes to being scared their imaginations are half cocked at all times, more than prepared to fill every blank with the bogeyman. Although Intruders, much like last year’s Insidious, is framed as a sins-of-the-father spook-fest, it assumes too little of its audience — specifically that we too need only contemplate a darkened wardrobe or the outline of a giant, grabby dude to want to jump out of our skin.

Despite being separated by the English channel and a few countries in between, both little Juan (Izán Corchero) and 12-year-old Mia (Ella Purnell) are having the same bad dream: A man in a Grim Reaper/Hazmat getup visits them in the night and tries to steal their faces. Juan, with his penchant for creepy bedtime stories, seems to have frightened himself into a state. Mia, having been mysteriously drawn to the tree on her grandparents’ estate where a hand-written story of the “Hollow Man” is hidden, becomes cursed with the subject’s presence. Why the pair have imagined or conjured this faceless fellow is a question that director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) leaves wide open, much like my bedroom door every night until I was about 17. With the hall light on, please. Although the expertly chilled atmosphere of this dark world is re-visited every other scene — with Fresnadillo leaning on the scare horn — storywise we have to assume what any parent would: Either these kids have been eating too many Doritos or it’s a dreamlife kink that will eventually work itself out.

“It’s just a story,” Mia’s father, John (Clive Owen), tells her. “You needn’t be afraid of stories.” They’re both a little afraid of mom (Carice van Houten), though, and why not — she’s always throwing cold water on their bonding time, not least of all when she actually threw cold water on the bogeyman effigy John built and lit up in the backyard to help ease Mia’s fears. Owen is as warm and doting a presence here as he was in the recent online-exploitation parable Trust, and he tries to give the similarly plotted unseating of that stability the same dad-on-fire urgency. But the script (by Nicolás Casariego and Jamie Marques) feels disordered somehow, as though the materials for a decent horror allegory arrived in the mail without instructions and a few key pieces missing, and the Intruders team tried to put it together anyway.

Least successful is the toggling back and forth between Juan — who is carted to and from the Catholic Church as his mother (Pilar López de Ayala) seeks help for his night terrors — and Mia, who favors her father and whose storyline is favored in the film. When John is involved in a dreadful accident at work on a construction site, the story slouches in a potentially interesting direction: Are these two so close that they're actually sharing anxieties? And what would a little Spanish boy have to do with that? When neither Jesus, nor dad, nor ACT security, nor the police can vanquish the Hollow Man from Mia’s bedroom, the resolution appears by a kind of process of elimination: Psychiatry to the rescue!

If it didn’t work for Psycho, the medical, explanatory twist tanks what little dramatic momentum Intruders had going into the home stretch. Owen and Purnell, a strikingly beautiful young girl last seen playing the young Keira Knightley in Never Let Me Go, do their best to bring emotional life to an oddly staged, pseudo-confessional conclusion. Their commitment is wasted on an ersatz psycho-thriller more interested in the aesthetics of scary movies than the whys, whats and wows.

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