(Spain, 2011,100 minutes)
Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Cast: Clive Owen, Carice Van Houten, Daniel Brühl, Pilar López de Ayala, Ella Purnell
Spanish thriller director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo has such a knack for crafting shocks and extended scenes of knuckle-whitening dread that his work should be mentioned in the same breath as that of Guillermo Del Toro or Jaume Balagueró—if only he was more prolific. With only three feature films to his credit in a decade (a real shame, considering the number of genre hacks who crank out a “Resident Evil” or “Final Destination sequel every other year like it’s the law), each successive release has become something of an event to this viewer, who was dazzled by his inventive debut feature “Intacto” (not inaccurately labeled as the Spanish “Unbreakable”).
His “28 Weeks Later” was that rare sequel that eclipsed the original (which was pretty damned fine)—there are terror sequences in that unexpected gem that I rank amongst the finest work crafted by Carpenter, Romero, and yes, even Hitchcock.
So I was very excited having read he had a new horror effort ready for release and that it would receive an esteemed “Special Presentations” slot here at TIFF. I wish I could say I liked it more—overall it’s a solid, classy endeavour (that should earn only a PG-rating in Ontario), but I felt it hinged too much on a predictable plot revelation and visually didn’t offer much that Bernard Rose didn’t attempt with his debut dark fantasy “Paperhouse” and Clive Barker adaptation “Candyman”, to which “Intruders” owes a lot.
Fresnadillo spins twin story arcs: the first, set in an unidentified, Spanish-speaking country, where a single mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) comforts her son, Juan, at bed time not to be afraid of the local legend “Hollowface”, who is said to steal the faces of children because he doesn’t have one of his own.
Elsewhere, in what is presumably England, Meanwhile, another child, Mia (Ella Purnell) unearths a wooden box from her yard, and inside finds yellowing pages on which an unfinished story is hand-written. The story of Hollowface. She decides to continue writing it as part of a school assignment.
Immediately, the monster becomes a phantom presence in both of their lives. Juan’s nightmares worsen, so his mother takes him to a local priest, whose mentor scoffs “that boy needs a psychiatrist, not an exorcist”. Mia’s father John (Clive Owen) takes her to a psychiatrist, but the caseworkers are more concerned about his increasingly agitated and violent state.
There are some chilling sequences—the creature’s first pursuit of Juan across the rain-slicked scaffolding of his mother’s tenement, Owen’s security camera encounter that forecasts the twist a little too early, a mock-exorcism to placate Juan’s mother, and Hollowface itself is a creepy image--a hooded reaper gene-spliced with Venom that should make for a very cool action figure from McFarlane Toys.
But then it flips for a direction I feared was coming and found unnecessary—not the “it’s all a dream” ending from “Invaders From Mars”, but still a too-often used rug pull in horror films these days that can smack of a cop-out to a cynical infusion of psychological “depth”, as if good, honest scares aren’t enough.
In the hands of directors like Fresnadillo, they most certainly are. Maybe after a few more movies he will have developed the confidence to match his eye. I just hope I don’t have to wait another ten years.
©2011 Robert J. Lewis