Intruders: Toronto Film Review

Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's technical skills are impressive, but this psychological chiller loses traction in the over-explanatory concluding stretch.

Clive Owen stars in Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's atmospheric psychological horror hybrid, which samples widely from genre staples.

Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's Intruders is an atmospheric psychological horror hybrid that samples from a lot of genre staples without fully committing to any of them. Like the best of recent Spanish fright fare, Pan's Labyrinth, it harnesses the vulnerability and powerful imagination of children. It throws in a franchise-ready monster-movie boogeyman called Hollow Face, and even adds a hint of possession and ecclesiastical intervention that harks back to The Exorcist. Where the film falls apart is in trying to steer this nightmare out of dark fantasy into the cold light of logic.

Following his 2001 domestic debut, Intacto, Fresnadillo landed a plum assignment with 28 Weeks Later, capably picking up where Danny Boyle left off in his terrifying zombie spree, 28 Days Later. Co-financed by Universal Pictures International, Intruders shows again that Fresnadillo can deliver chills, sustain a mood of potent dread and ratchet up suspense as such B-movies demand. But Nico Casariego and Jaime Marques' shaky screenplay lets him down.

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In the terrific prologue, set in Spain, young Juan (Izan Corchero) creeps himself out before bedtime by telling an unfinished monster story to his mother Luisa (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) about a lonely ghoul that lives in the shadows and wants to tear off and wear children's faces in order to make people love him. Juan's fears become viscerally real when he slips outside in the lashing rain to retrieve the family cat, but witnesses a hooded, seemingly faceless figure scrambling up the scaffolding and entering the house.

While the time shift is not immediately clear, the action jumps to London 30 years later, where the same spectral presence starts plaguing 12-year-old Mia (Ella Purnell) after she finds the beginning of a child's hand-written story hidden in a tree trunk near her grandparents' house. Her father, construction engineer John Farrow (Clive Owen), tries to soothe her anxieties by reassuring her that monsters can only harm children who believe in them, but Hollow Face soon becomes impossible to dismiss.

The name given to John's daughter is more likely a fanboy in-joke than a direct nod to Rosemary's Baby, given that Intruders has little kinship to that classic, or to Polanski paranoia in general. It treads an ambiguous line between violent reality and frightening imagination as it cuts back and forth between Luisa and John's attempts to protect their children.

Luisa turns to the church for help, but sympathetic Father Antonio (Daniel Bruhl) proves ineffectual. John gets no backup from his disbelieving wife Sue (Carice Van Houten), an underwritten character, or from Mia's psychologist (Kerry Fox) when the traumatized child stops speaking. But all the new home-security precautions can't keep Hollow Face away.


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Casariego and Marques' script gets repetitive as both children experience multiple variations on the same nocturnal encounters, even if Fresnadillo handles these scenes with skill. But things get increasingly wobbly when the threads of the parallel plotlines are drawn together, via a link that some audience members will spot in advance.

The climactic action lurches off on a visual tangent reminiscent of Guillermo Del Toro's work, as Mia's bedroom comes alive with a seething mass of inky tendrils. It's an intriguing idea that the same trauma hatches a vivid nightmare that continues to develop in the active minds of children over two generations. But the resolution nonetheless is unsatisfying, dismantling the film's supernatural foundations using dreary psychology.

This is not an actor's movie, but Owen gives warm authority to the hero figure, even if, for a man with his own demons, the character takes far too long to connect the dots. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak cooks up a suitably brooding look, with lots of darting movement, and Nacho Ruiz Capillas' editing ups the agitation, a quality that's more than a little overstated in composer Roque Banos' jittery, string-heavy score.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Apaches Entertainment, Antena 3 Films
Cast: Clive Owen, Carice Van Houten, Daniel Bruhl, Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Ella Purnell, Izan Corchero, Kerry Fox, Hector Alterio
Director: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Screenwriters: Nico Casariego, Jaime Marques
Producers: Enrique Lopez-Lavigne, Belen Atienza, Mercedes Gamero
Executive producers: Jesus de la Vega, Ricardo Garcia Arrojo
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Alain Bainee
Music: Roque Banos
Costume designer: Tatiana Hernandez
Editor: Nacho Ruiz Capillas
Sales: UTA (U.S.)/Universal Pictures International
No rating, 100 minutes