There’s a line of critical thinking that claims horror films, if they’re to be any good at all, need to be classed up in one way or another—through shadows and suggestion, through political metaphor, through evocative flashbacks or character study, through anything that avoids blood, guts, and more explicit forms of cinematic trauma. And while that more restrained approach has yielded plenty of fine contemporary horror, from throwbacks like The Others or The House Of The Devil to the historical allusion of Guillermo Del Toro, there can be a point where films seem embarrassed to be a part of the genre. The gifted director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo has shown no such restraint in previous films like Intacto and the first-rate sequel 28 Weeks Later, but his disappointing new effort, Intruders, feels tentative and weak whenever it isn’t simply baldly derivative. It’s old-fashioned to the point of ossification.
Marrying a monster movie to high-toned themes of storytelling and memory, Intruders cuts back and forth between two imaginative children in separate locales who have encounters with the same menace at different times. In Spain, 30 years earlier, a boy (Izán Corchero) sketches profiles of the shrouded, faceless specter that visits his room at night, and his mother (Pilar López de Ayala) enlists help from a priest (Daniel Brühl). Meanwhile, in present-day London, a little girl (Ella Purnell) also has visitations from the creature, whom she dubs “Hollowface” for his intent to steal her facial features to fill in the blanks on his ghoulish visage. The only adult who seems capable of seeing Hollowface is the girl’s father, played by Clive Owen, and he tries, often futilely, to protect her from harm.
There’s a touching, wise strain to the film’s views of parenting, a belief that no matter how much we shield our children from terrible things in the world, it’s not always possible. And a creature that lurks in dark places and steals children’s faces is a solid enough piece of mythmaking, leading Fresnadillo to uncork a few effective sequences, particularly a nighttime escape across a rickety, rain-soaked scaffolding. But Intruders turns on a twist that’s obvious from the first reel, and holds too much back in trying to sell it. It’s too tasteful to stoop to the down-and-dirty business of actually scaring the audience.