Don't Let Them In: "Trespassers" often tense and stylish but mainly just nasty, and not in a fun way

Trespassers (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited & VOD)

There’s a certain line a horror film has to walk in order to be a merciless, gripping experience rather than cruel and unpleasant, but “Trespassers” (originally titled “Hell Is Where the Home Is”) ultimately crosses the line, doing its characters dirty and never earning the viciousness. Credit director Orson Oblowitz and writer Corey Deshon for bringing a prickliness to the character relationships and initially defying expectations before the actual home-invasion plot gets underway, but when one begins to root for three out of the four protagonists to just be put out of their misery, it’s a tell-tale sign that there’s not much to “Trespassers” besides being a purely nasty contained thriller.

Married couple Sarah (Angela Trimbur) and Joseph (Zach Avery) rent out a house from a couple of photojournalists in the Mojave Desert for the weekend in hopes of an escape from the tragic loss of their unborn child that has strained their relationship. Much to Joseph’s chagrin, Sarah has also invited her somewhat estranged high school friend Estelle (Janel Parrish) and Estelle’s boyfriend Victor (Jonathan Howard), who bring out the booze and coke. As the night presses on, both couples’ relationship troubles bubble to the surface but have to be tabled once a woman (Fairuza Balk) claiming to be a neighbor whose car has broken down knocks on the door. Sarah lets her in to use the landline since there's no cell service in the area, but the woman outstays her welcome. Everything goes to hell before a Mexican gang of masked, machete-packing intruders even pose a threat.

“Trespassers” is crafted with some pleasing tension and neon-infused style, complemented by Noah Rosenthal's cinematography and Jonathan Snipes’ propulsive, synth-heavy music score, once the intensity gets ratcheted up. There is a gasp-worthy moment involving a carafe and a “what-would-you-do?” sense of terror to the predicament Sarah, Joseph, Estelle, and Victor finds themselves in, and then there’s fifty-five minutes remaining. Angela Trimbur (2016’s “Trash Fire”) has the most sympathetic character to play and goes through the wringer as the final girl that Sarah so clearly is, even if the film doesn’t really deserve her commitment. It’s not that Zach Avery, Janel Parrish, and Jonathan Howard aren’t competent in their roles, but their characters aren’t given enough redeeming qualities to feel like well-rounded people, particularly toxic, thoroughly unlikable Victor, who might be the “smartest” in being against opening the door to a stranger but is so exempt of any sympathy. Although billed only as The Visitor and not clearly tied into the goings-on, Fairuza Balk adds a watchable, unpredictable weirdness for the short time she’s on screen, and whether or not it’s a nod to her character Nancy in 1996’s “The Craft,” Balk gets to say, “I am not the Wicked Witch of the West, honey.”

A lot of crawling around on the floor, fending off the intruders, and intruder-to-victim torture ensues, all of it bloody and brutal, but there’s no real draw to watching any of it go down. The stereotypical intruders’ motivation is pretty standard—they need a McGuffin from inside the house—and the weekend renters are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, natch. “Trespassers” delivers nothing particularly new, even if it's effective in spurts (a fight-to-the-finish brawl next to a pool is well-staged), but while the script gives its characters plenty of interpersonal drama to work with before their life-or-death struggle, there is precious little to care about.