You wish the wraith-like creature known as Hollowface would just hurry up and get on with it in “Intruders,” a fitfully creepy, overly protracted chiller that plays more like a noncommittal sampler of horror techniques than the vivid nightmare it’s clearly aiming for. Split between two narrative threads, each centered around a child terrorized by a persistent but annoyingly hesitant monster, this polished item from Spanish genre pro Juan Carlos Fresnadillo operates by ill-defined supernatural rules and takes its sweet time springing underwhelming surprises. Clive Owen starrer will scare up more returns internationally than Stateside.
In Spain, young Juan (Izan Corchero) is receiving near-nightly visits from a black-hooded, faceless specter with a pronounced resemblance to a “Harry Potter” Dementor. Hoping to free her boy from this demonic influence, mom Luisa (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) seeks help from a priest (Daniel Bruehl). But Juan’s horrors seem to be largely of his own creation, as he spends much of his time scribbling scary stories on notepads after dark.
Similarly captivated by her love of storytelling, London girl Mia (a fine Ella Purnell, “Never Let Me Go”) is also being stalked by the hooded creep, who in her stories goes by the name of Hollowface. As Mia writes, Hollowface is hellbent on stealing a child’s visage for his own; to that end, there is a steady proliferation of nightmares and hallucinations in which various characters’ features have been digitally erased, a device that becomes less freaky the more it’s used.
Indeed, little in “Intruders” improves with repetition. Tension dissipates every time the film cuts from Juan in Spain to Mia in Blighty. The kids spend so much time writing about Hollowface, it’s hard not to feel they deserve whatever heebie-jeebies they get. Hollowface keeps showing up in Juan’s bedroom, yet all he really does is hover, making him about as scary as a ceiling fan. He takes a slightly more aggressive tack with Mia, creeping out of her closet — in a sequence that does deliver a gratifying frisson of terror — and attacking her and her father, John (Clive Owen), the only adult who seems to see what Mia sees.
Owen, who’s played a number of protective dads of late (“The Boys Are Back,” “Trust”), effectively conveys John’s desperate, fearful love for his daughter, and at the film’s core is the germ of a compelling idea: that parents can’t always protect their children, and that the monster in the closet might be more than just a figment of a kid’s overactive imagination. But the script (by Nico Casariego and Jaime Marques) never deals with this notion at a psychological or subtextual level, and its climactic twist exposes the entire story as a gimmicky construct.
Production bears out the craft and polish of Fresnadillo’s “Intacto” and “28 Weeks Later,” but the serious thriller chops the director brought to those pictures seem misapplied to a story that consistently undercuts its own suspense and momentum. The visual effects, sparingly used throughout, go for phantasmagoric overkill in the final stretch.
A nude scene by Carice van Houten (as Mia’s mom), far from unwelcome but unnecessary from a dramatic standpoint, is the only reason this gore-free picture wouldn’t qualify for a PG-13 rating in the U.S. Among the film’s many oddities, perhaps easier to spot in the press notes than in the finished work itself, is the decision to give Mia the last name Farrow.