When everything in a movie is an effect, they cease to be "special." So limiting effects to the basics, especially in a horror movie, especially one as lean and primal as "Intruders," is how you make them truly "special" again - special and genuinely chilling.
"Intruders" is a variation on the boogeyman-in-the-closet tale. And the every day-and-every night reality of this story about kids under attack makes the appearance of a swooping, grabbing, cowled and faceless menace all the more shocking.
The film from the Spanish director of "Intacto" and "28 Weeks Later" follows parallel stories. A little Spanish boy (Izan Corchero) of about 11 is writing a story so frightening that it gives him nightmares. "Hollowface," the boogeyman in question, is coming to steal his face and voice in the dark of the Spanish night.
Mom (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) is no help. "Close your eyes and count to five."
Then, she sees the monster and fights it off. Mom's a believer. If only the handsome priest (Daniel Bruhl) could see what she sees, maybe he'd stop dropping his prayer and exorcism suggestions.
In England, meanwhile, young Mia (Ella Purnell) has discovered a version of the story and woven in her own touches. She polishes a draft before bedtime, and sure enough, Hollowface is on her case, too. Only Mia's high-rise iron worker dad (Clive Owen) believes her. Yeah, he's gotten into a fistfight with this red-hooded, no-face freak. His wife (Carice Van Houten from "Black Book") and the cops are less sure what's going on with this intruder.
Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo spins this psycho-supernatural thriller into a genuine chiller, zipping us between locations and ratcheting up the fright with judicious use of shadows, extreme close-ups and strident violins in the score. It's a scary story about loving scary stories as we watch Juan and Mia write themselves into horrific corners, perhaps taking Mia's dad's advice too literally: "To kill a monster, you have to enter their story."
I particularly like the false alleys the film takes us into and the way it hides its mysteries. Fresnadillo uses train set-sized models to illustrate and set the scene as the children tell their versions of the tale. And in both halves of the story - British and Spanish (those scenes performed in Spanish with subtitles) - the child-actors are dazzlers, kids rendered speechless by the terror of what they're experiencing.
Horror has been so dumbed down in recent years that it's a minor miracle when a movie in this genre actually gives you something to ponder, something more than omnipotent nuts-with-knives or teenagers trapped in abandoned summer camps. With "Silent House" and "Intruders," and last year's "Insidious," one can almost sense a maturing of Hollywood's most durable genre, a desire to switch off the "Saw" and get beyond "Halloween." Or wish it so.
Cast: Clive Owen, Ella Purnell, Pilar Lopez de Ayala, Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruhl
Credits: Directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, written by Nicolas Casariego and Jaime Marques. A Millennium release.
MPAA rating: R for terror, horror violence, some sexuality/ nudity and language