100 min., rated R.
Over the years, there has been a horde of horror films about monstrous boogeymen lurking in the darkness. Ranging from horrid to mediocre—2002's "Darkness," 2002's "They," 2003's "Darkness Falls," 2005's "Boogeyman," 2007's "The Messengers"—they all seem to blend. And so, with the arrival of "Intruders," it's safe to say it's more unique than derivative, but still doesn't form a fully effective whole. Though playing like a literal there's-a-monster-in-my-closet! horror tale for nearly all of its running time, "Intruders" ends up being a story about identity, family trauma, imagination, and childhood interpretation. So what a disappointment that the film is such a sloppily written gimmick, its psychological twist introducing a more interesting (if less marketable) angle when we've just spent the last 90 minutes with closet monsters.
In Spain, young Juan (Izan Corchero) has nightmares about Hollowface, a faceless figure looking for faces to steal, coming into his home and attacking his mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who soon looks to Catholicism as a hopeful solution. Over in London, 12-year-old Mia Farrow (Ella Purnell), no relation to the "Rosemary's Baby" star, finds a journal entry about Hollowface in a tree that she uses to write a short story for school. One night, when Mia fears Hollowface is coming for her and has troubling sleeping, her construction worker father, John (Clive Owen), comes to the rescue and witnesses the hooded, faceless intruder, who attacks Dad and takes his daughter's mouth (or ability to speak). So is there really a monster in Mia's closet, picking out tomorrow's outfit for her, or is it all in her head? And what else do these Hollowface-related incidents, in Spain and London, have in common?
After first coming on the scene with 2001's Twilight Zone-ish "Intacto" and then adding a jolt of fresh blood to Danny Boyle's vampire tale with his tense, stylish sequel "28 Weeks Later," director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo knows how to visualize the stuff that nightmares are made of. Off to an effective start—on a dark, rainy night, Juan witnesses the hooded Hollowface entering his apartment window from the fire escape—with echoes of 1997's "Mimic" (minus the cockroaches), the film creates a dark, shadowy, palpable creepiness, aided by Enrique Chediak's ("28 Weeks Later") jittery camera work and Roque Baños' tingly, dread-filled score. So far, so good.
Then, just when we assume the film is merely a standard boogeyman movie with vague rules, screenwriters Nicolás Casariego and Jaime Marques drop a contrived, nonsensical third-act twist. It might surprise in how both timelines converge, but acts solely as an "aha" moment for the audience and negates everything else that preceded it. In retrospect, why would John be so shocked over the information medical professionals reveal to him and his wife (Carice van Houten), unless he suffered memory loss? Given what else is revealed thereafter, it can be assumed that the writers were purely out to pull the wool over our eyes instead of crafting a foolproof narrative free of logic hiccups. Though "Intruders" bungles its potential, its climactic moments don't feel the need to belabor more information, which is suggested rather than spelled out.
Of the cast, Owen gives a dignified portrayal of a father caught in a desperate, devoted struggle to help his daughter, while Purnell perseveres as Mia. Nicely atmospheric and incidentally thoughtful, "Intruders" sets a nightmarish mood and draws out some shivery, unsettling images on occasion. Hollowface is an intriguing physical specter, but Freddy Krueger could menace circles around him. It's not as routine as it initially lets on, but the viewer might wish the film were more consistently handled. When all is said and done, the finished product loses sight of greatness, ending up a confused boo-boo.