By John Lichman | The Playlist March 14, 2012 at 8:58AM
How do you make the most of a ghost story in the age of post-meta horror films? If you're Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, you run with the idea of a fairy tale until you've copied and pasted so many tropes that "Intruders" emerges as a messy puddle.
Pint-sized author Juan (Izán Corecho) is reading his latest horror story to his mother (Pilar López de Ayala) before she tucks him in, chiding him that his story has no ending, a helpful bit of foreshadowing. Juan climbs out onto a scaffold to find his cat when a cloaked figure seems to slide up to building and into his window. Inside, Juan's mother is choked by the creature until he intervenes and escapes back out the window with the specter on his heels. After a short walk off an even shorter platform, the figure falls over and Juan is left crying in his mother's arms. Meanwhile, outside London, Mia (Ella Purnell) is playing at her grandparents' farm when she is drawn to a tree and finds a wooden box with a one-page story about a creature called Hollowface. She copies the story for her class, but can't read the ending covered in mud. Her father John (Clive Owen) works on top of a skyscraper and seems to be the least interesting man in construction, along with his co-worker, who may be named Plot D. Vice for all he contributes. Faster than you can say Candyman, Hollowface emerges in her closet. After seeking help from her dad -- and the No Nightmares children's book -- they create an effigy to burn in their backyard, which happens to be the same dripping wet, faceless man in a raincoat terrorizing Juan and his mother in Spain. What's the shocking twist connection between two different countries sharing the same boogeyman? Are John and Mia experiencing some mental breakdown; is Juan possessed by a demonic force? Why does Hollowface technically not have a face? All of these are relevant questions to explore.
Working off a script by Jaime Marques and Nicolás Casariego, Fresnadillo doesn't bring any fresh ideas to the table. The monster is a mish-mash of J-Horror tropes and slow-paced threat; instead of a repetitive music cue like Jason's theme in the "Friday the 13th" series, there's dirty water and inky darkness in an oversized rain poncho that transforms into a swirling CGI mess of material that seems like a crossover with the Ring Wraiths from "Lord of the Rings." Even the structure feels like a carbon copy of "Ju-on" with elements of water, shadow and cats playing as a serious homage to the genre.
It's been a while since a friendly meme-creature was on screen to stalk impressionable youth. Mia grants Hollowface greater power because she keeps trying to finish the story and adds more to the extent of what he can do. Fresnadillo takes both stories as different examinations of what it’s like being a single parent with problems. In Spain, the mother immediately takes Juan to a priest; in Britain, they go to a shrink after Hollowface's first attack. It's the battle of spiritualism and guilt versus possible mental disease; the latter comes out stronger when a "Take Shelter"-esque twist occurs near the end of the film. Unfortunately, it gets overshadowed by a red herring that, if you pay attention to dates and names, becomes pretty obvious. Misdirection is a pesky double-edged sword for Fresnadillo, as he doesn't really use it that well. Aside from John and Mia's last name, and the alarm code for their house, there are no other clues to really grab a hold of.
Overall, "Intruders" hardly resembles the work of the same talent who made "Intacto." If you replaced Clive Owen with Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, the story would fit right into a procedural creature-of-the-week show like "Supernatural." There are countless pseudo-inventive moments that are astoundingly lazy, such as when John installs a video camera in Mia's bedroom to provide the ten seconds of grainy security footage. Even the creepiness of stealing faces loses steam when Hollowface's shtick doesn't actually give him a face, so what's the point? Apparently it's to be Casper the Dickish Ghost That Can Beat Up Clive Owen, but that doesn't make the film any good. [C]