Intruders Dir. Adam Schindler

[Momentum Pictures; 2016]

Styles: horror, thriller, cat and mouse, genre fodder
Others: Return to Sender, Missionary, Knock Knock and the rest I forget

Decency dictates that I must warn genre goers that there are blatant spoilers in this review. I must insist, however, that it is not out of desensitization or unrealistic standards that I am roundly dismissive of this effort. Twists and turns are not, in and of themselves, something that redeems a film or story for me. A harmony of elements is what’s key, so that if the film is attractive, the reviewer relishes the task of stealthily setting the table for an audience yet to enjoy its surprises for themselves. Intruders is by no means an attractive presentation. It is competent in a sense, but I contend that this sort of competency could increasingly be considered a worse waste of time than a total disaster.

I’m less fickle with age, but this particular genre fatigue has reached a critical mass just the same. The manifestation of a post-Saw/found footage horror landscape has been disheartening to say the least. What seems to endlessly recur is this banal notion of pathology as a hobbyhorse. Audiences vicariously study and attempt to track/explore its extremes, and this has put a reality TV-like stranglehold on the elemental delicacy of the uncanny. More than ever, now, we are spoiled by diversion. The pitch and cadence control that goes into the average large-scale show or film ensures inclusivity or at least some clear delineation between genre specificity and basic storytelling. This calculation can be distractingly mechanical, even when everything seems in its right place. But what I will always long for is the type of work that isn’t an afterthought, that is arriving whole cloth and not trying to put one over (or if it is, its message is too tight knit for me to immediately see through it). And this applies to an (at least seemingly) universal epic tale as much as the next home invasion thriller.

Of course I wanted more than just the next thing from Intruders (originally, superiorly, titled Shut In). Encroaching outside forces are a fine point of fear, particularly if you’re familiar with spending your nights in the suburbs and countryside. You hear about these things happening once or twice over the years, and it becomes an ominously generalized “something that’s happened” in your head. You double check noises, locks. You wonder what’s under that tarp on the abandoned property next door. It’s an easy cinematic place to put the zap on people, whether they are over-accustomed to isolated spaces or just wary of them. And many improvements have come about since the exploitative, sloppily cut sleaze of Death Wish and its imitators made the world forget about Richard Brooks’ potent adaptation of In Cold Blood. In the last decade we were graced with three notable French takes on the subgenre with the subtle Ils, the charmingly classical Haute Tension, and the ultraviolent Interieur. Around the same time Austrian director Michael Haneke (who is on record as loathing the horror genre altogether) re-made his 1997 film, Funny Games. Haneke twice-helmed a home invasion thriller tasked with mirroring the roman bloodlust and sadism in the genre viewer. Too bad he is such a formally skilled director, as both films (save the fourth wall-breaking meta-commentary) could serve as a master class in white knuckle tension. 2014’s The Guest was proof, however, that a craftsman can take moldy, tawdry tropes and reinvigorate them without making any kind of a statement (or resorting to some bracketed nostalgia exercise).

Invention or craft is unfortunately in short supply here. Mildly assuring as it was to see Rory Culkin and Martin Starr (Haverchuck!) in the cast, that poster gave me pause. I’d hoped its house-with-knives-for-a-basement imagery was figurative. While it’s not quite literal, this is in fact one of those puzzle trap enclosure movies. This is Saw country. After a maudlin intro where a sister comforts her cancer-stricken brother in his final hours followed by a brief flirtation with some home invasion fight/flight adrenaline, the sister traps the titular scoundrels in her mechanical basement and this movie lurches into full blown tedium mode. The back-story is a further twist that I won’t spoil and barely care enough to recount anyway. I just know it led to a lot of bloodstained, yelly stagnancy posing as claustrophobic psychological tautness or what-the-pullquote have you.

This is a movie that sticks you with heavy emotions when it’s not emotionally resonant, looms and threatens when it’s not particularly scary and uses sordid, convoluted exposition to flesh out its eye-rollingly familiar macabre slug lines. The Collector (2009) was similarly familiar, but it upped the ante enough on a technical level to not need much of a back story (the enemy of any “night from hell,” real time-ish thriller, it seems). It takes a while to get going, but once it does it is relentless. Intruders is only relentless in its inability to get out of its own way. When I look at those receding stairs in this woman’s basement dungeon, I shouldn’t be thinking “those are neat, I wonder how much that effect cost.” Even with Starr and Culkin in their ranks, the invaders are such unremarkable figures that the tables turning renders any lingering suspense a joyless slog of who dies when and why.

There have been worse films of this sort (even some of the ones deemed as sleepers, like 2008’s The Strangers), and the lead (Beth Riesgraf) shows some good action/horror chops, but Intruders ultimately got very little going for it. The original title is more provocative, perhaps because agoraphobia holds more innate thematic promise than the vigilante torture chamber piece the affliction is affixed to. I’m sorry to report that Intruders is one of those movies that is so hybridized that it never registers as its own entity. It’s a thriller only in the basic categorical sense. Something that at one time would’ve been a used bin marauder, now fated to turn up as a dead end of the “Because you watched…” variety.

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