In “Intruders,” a (maybe) supernatural thriller from director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (“Intacto,” “28 Weeks Later”), Mia, a 12-year-old English girl (Ella Purnell), finds the faded manuscript of a horror story in a hole way up a tree. The story is about Hollowface, a faceless nocturnal predator, who yearns to steal a child’s face as his own.
Mia plagiarizes the tale for school, reading it aloud to her enthralled class. There are two reasons this turns out to be a terrible idea. First, as Mia knows, the story stops abruptly, as though unfinished, and now her teacher wants her to write the rest. Secondly, as Mia unfortunately doesn’t know, the act of speaking Hollowface’s name is enough to summon him from ... wherever.
Soon, she begins to sense that there is someone in her bedroom, hiding within the shadows in her closet; and, before long, he materializes threateningly in the room. Luckily, her father, John (Clive Owen), rushes in and fights the intruder, who escapes out the window.
John is a construction worker, brave enough to spend all day way up in the skeleton of a skyscraper, so, predictably, he doesn’t want to wait around for the police to find the man.
But Mia isn’t Hollowface’s only victim. In a rundown apartment in Spain, a little boy (Izán Corchero) is being similarly terrorized. His mother (Pilar López de Ayala) consults her priest (Daniel Brühl), who tries to arrange something like an exorcism.
As we go back and forth between these two – with the English plot thread clearly dominant, adding up to at least three quarters of the running time – many questions nag at us: Who is Hollowface? How can the children be saved? And, most of all, what’s the connection? Why is he after these two particular kids, separated by geography and language?
Fresnadillo’s last feature was the 2007 “28 Weeks Later” (the sequel to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later...”), which in some ways bested the original. Like any contemporary horror director, Fresnadillo knows all the tricks of audience manipulation – “faux” loud noise, shock cuts, brief and ambiguous images in the shadows, dissonant (often misleading) music.
But there is more than that going on in “Intruders.” The mystery of the dual plot line is also a trick – a very cleverly executed one, which baffles the audience by exploiting their ingrained responses to certain cinematic conventions. I didn’t figure it out until moments before the big reveal. It’s a trick ... but not a cheat; a second viewing exposed how many hints had been spread throughout the film. (Your mileage may vary.)
It would be lovely to give you an example, but it would ruin the experience. This sadly hasn’t stopped some reviewers and online commenters from blithely posting (without spoiler warnings) the equivalent of “Bruce Willis is dead,” “Darth Vader is Luke’s father,” and “It was the name of his sled.” So read cautiously.
Owen is always at least good, and here he’s perfectly cast. (Actually, he played a similar character stuck in an analogous position in last year’s “Trust.”) But the most striking performance is from Purnell, who is best known as the younger version of Keira Knightley’s character in “Never Let Me Go.” The film relies on a certain kind of ambiguity of expression, which she pulls off perfectly. And her chemistry with Owen is good enough to both imply and deny something less savory in their relationship.
Amid the nonstop creepiness, Fresnadillo tosses in innumerable references to (or appropriations from) other horror films – “Poltergeist,” “The Exorcist,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Candyman,” “The Grudge” – the list goes on. The recognition of these connections occasionally threatens to pull us out of the film. The strangest of his injokes, however, is in his choice of names: John’s last name is Farrow, which would make his daughter’s name the same as the star of one of the greatest of all horror films. (The real life Farrow’s father, an underrated Hollywood director, was also named John.) An amusing, but bizarre and gratuitous, joke. Grade: A- (Rated R for terror, horror violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.)