Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #6: Intruders



Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s impressive and anxiety-provoking Intruders (2011) is a deliberately Freudian horror film, a fact that may enthrall some audiences while frustrating others, especially those seeking an entirely “linear” movie-going experience.  

Because of its overt psychological nature, Intruders makes itself available to two interpretations.

One interpretation involves a legitimately supernatural monster called “Hollow Face” haunting a family in England. 

The other, perhaps more preferable interpretation, obsesses on Sigmund Freud’s theory about “derivatives of the unconscious,” or “symptoms” bubbling to the surface and taking on, if not life, then at least a brand of life. 

Thus Intruders is a “return of the repressed”-styled horror film, one in which the lurking terror is actually an unresolved memory that manifests itself as a folie-a-deux: a hallucination shared by two people of remarkable closeness.

And yet the film is much more than that description implies. 

Not unlike Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), Intruders meditates on the pro-social value of “scary stories,” and the way that children, by nature, must see those frightening narratives through to the end, discovering closure and catharsis in the process of confronting their own fears.  

In another sense, Intruders comments meaningfully on the parental-child bond.  The film considers the ways that the concerns of the parent or adult can destroy a child, and also the ways that the love of a parent can save him or her from harms both physical and psychological.

Focusing in large part on the rituals of bedtime and slumber, Intruders dwells in a universal place of terror.  If as a child you ever felt afraid of what lurked in that span of darkness behind a half-open closet door, this film will bring back that anxiety in spades.   The night terrors you haven’t thought about since childhood – that you’ve repressed? – form the very gestalt of the film’s intense and often unbearably terrifying horror sequences.  One incredible shot suggest that no matter where a child stands, the "Boogeyman" is always behind him, universally detectable...yet not quite glimpsed.

Viscerally presented and haunting on an emotional, gut level, Intruders is exactly the sort of layered, multi-faceted horror film that many aficionados of the genre have been waiting for.

“No dreaming about monsters, okay?”


Intruders depicts two interconnected tales, though the connecting fiber between the strands isn’t instantly apparent.

One tale involves twelve-year old Mia (Ella Purnell), a girl on the cusp of achieving adulthood.  While visiting her grandparents’ country house, Mia discovers something secret; something hidden inside an old, gnarled tree.  It’s a box with a hand-written story inside: the story of a monstrous creature called Hollow Face.  Unfortunately, the last lines of Hollow Face’s story are smeared by water damage, meaning that the tale boasts no resolution.

Hollow Face, Mia learns, is a lonely, self-loathing thing without a face. Lacking a visage, he fears he will never be loved. So Hollow Face haunts the streets of a windswept city in search of a child…a child whose face he can steal.  

On one of his nightly sojourns, Hollow Face does find such a child, and thus concocts a plan.  He will hide in the darkest corner of the child’s bedroom and wait patiently for that child to fall sleep. 

He will move closer and closer, nearer and nearer, and then take that child’s face…

In Intruders’ second tale – often intercut with Mia’s story -- we meet young Juan (Izan Corchero), the son of a single mother, Luisa (Pilar López de Ayala).  In short order, Juan is visited by Hollow Face, who flies in through a bedroom window, and returns to the boy’s bedroom on a nightly basis, always getting closer to his prey. 

Fearing that Juan is somehow possessed by spirits, Luisa seeks the aid of a local priest, but it seems that nothing can save the boy from the terrifying nocturnal visitations.  During one visit to church, Luisa and Juan share a stunning moment in which a statue seems to take on, ever so briefly, the countenance of Hollow Face…

Meanwhile, in the other story, Mia begins to see Hollow Face in her bedroom, also drawing ever nearer, and determined to take her face…one feature at a time if necessary. 

One night – in an absolutely terrifying sequence – John enters his daughter’s dark bedroom, casts his gaze upon the open closet, and learns that her boogeyman -- Hollow Face -- is no mere nightmare.

 “Your story needs an ending…”


Intruders concerns the idea that, as Freud wrote “what we have forgotten is not extinguished,” and that memories – or “derivatives of the unconscious” – are “virtually immortal.”  

After even the “passage of decades,” these unwanted memories “behave as if they have just occurred.

Such (disturbing) memories seem to return -- in the flesh -- in Intruders, and it is not difficult to recognize the galvanizing forces behind that return of the repressed.  Mia finds the story of Hollow Face ---- whose ending has been erased by water damage -- in that old tree.  

And on his job, construction worker John experiences a trauma with a co-worker on a sky rise roof.  In its shape and specific dimensions, that near-accident echoes a trauma from the past that he has successfully buried; that his mother has sought very hard to bury.

Read no further if you wish to remain “spoiler free” regarding Intruders, because I’m about to reveal a key point of the film.

Still here?

Okay.

Read on.


As we learn late in the film, John is Juan as an adult.  And Hollow Face -- the thing that haunts Mia and Juan both -- was once a living individual. He was a man and convict -- Juan’s father -- who wanted desperately to love and be loved, but who sought out that human connection in a way that proved dangerous and terrifying to a child.  

Accordingly, Hollow Face represents the oft-seen “Bad Father” paradigm in the horror genre: the parent whose actions and behavior traumatize a child for life.   But Juan’s/John’s mother compounds the Bad Father’s crime by doing only what she feels is best for her child.  She denies to her son the existence of Hollow Face in his life and contextualizes the monster’s presence instead as merely a bad dream, something best forgotten; unexcavated and unexplained.

Where Intruders proves truly fascinating is in Juan’s/John’s way of coping with this lingering terror.  Unable to stop Hollow Face’s nightly assaults, young Juan writes up Hollow Face’s story.  This act of creation, of artistic expression, is a method of “purging himself” of Hollow Face and the terror it evokes in him.  

But then, instead of remembering that story, Juan finishes it up and locks it away somewhere inaccessible.  Physically, that place is a box inside a colossal tree.  Mentally, that place is some closed box within his own mind; some place he can’t easily or perhaps even consciously access

When Juan/John closes that box, he forgets the lesson about how to defeat Hollow Face.  He thus mentally “erases” the last lines of the story, just as the physical story’s end is actually erased by the damages of time.

The key to helping Mia survive the attack by Hollow Face, then, is John’s ability as an adult to face the very thing he defeated, but then repressed in childhood.  He must confront his mother about her denial and about the true nature of Hollow Face in his life.  

But finally, John cannot take Mia’s place in the nightmare she continually experiences.  She must “finish the story” for herself, a clear symbolic indication of the horror genre’s value in our society.  Only by finishing Hollow Face’s story – by confronting her fear – can Mia end the terror. 

I have seen this equation myself as a parent of a young boy.  My son Joel loves for me to tell him scary stories.  He doesn’t actually watch horror movies…he’s too young for the kind of intense imagery they often feature. 

Yet Joel loves to be told spooky tales of ghosts and monsters and strange creatures.  When I give him a bath every night or drive him to school each morning, he wants one thing and one thing alone: for me to tell him Twilight Zone stories or One Step Beyond stories, or the stories of all the “Freddy” movies (when he’s in the mood for a scary story with “continuing characters.”) 

In listening to and absorbing these tales, my son is challenging himself, facing his fears, and seeing that, in the end, he can absolutely handle those fears.  That is very much the role of horror in society, as I define it.  It’s something that goes back to the dawn of our species, to Greek Myth and monsters like the Minotaur, and to children’s fairy tales such as the Pied Piper and Hansel & Gretel. 


Through the countenancing of “make believe” monsters, a child learns how to cope with real life anxieties and fears.  That child simultaneously gains experience managing his worries and fears, and develops a history of successfully overcoming them.  This is why I will never, ever subscribe to the belief that horror is a bad thing, or somehow dangerous to “impressionable” children.  I grew up in a world of King Kong, Big Foot and Dracula.  Freddy Krueger, Aliens and Predators are the next generation of movie monsters, but very much the same thing.

What’s actually dangerous to children, in my opinion, is to shield them so thoroughly from the outside world that when something upsetting does occur -- as it inevitably will -- they find themselves utterly unable to cope or deal with it.  Horror stories (within reason, naturally) represent a harmless – that’s right harmless -- method of teaching children that fear is controllable…and also defeatable.

Intruders understands this equation, and reflects it to a high degree.  John is a man who is deathly afraid that his daughter growing up.  He gives her a teddy bear for her twelfth birthday, for example.  When Mia first experiences a nightmare of Hollow Face, John hauls out a children’s book – for kids of age five or under – about saying “boo!” to scary dreams and fending them off.  He is not reckoning with her true age, or what she really needs. 

At least twice in the film, John also fights Mia’s physical battles for her, going toe to toe with Hollow Face. 

Near film’s end, John states (rightly) that “parents will do anything to protect their children.”  It’s a beautiful sentiment, and yet sometimes "protection" can be counter-intuitive.  Mia may be “imperiled” because John has kept her sheltered and infantilized, unable to cope with the “monsters” under the bed, or the one lurking in the closet.  

John’s purpose as a parent is not to fight Hollow Face, then, but to make Mia ready to fight and defeat Hollow Face herself.  As parents, we can’t fight our kid’s battles for them. We can only give them the emotional support and life tools to fight them for themselves.  That's how we protect them.

In a very moving and even haunting way, Intruders provides two examples of very loving parents who select opposite paths.  One parent, Luisa, chooses denial and repression…a path which brings Hollow Face back from the dead, so-to-speak, to menace another generation (represented by Mia).  We see this approach in a shot wherein Luisa's hand covers John's eyes, a gesture taking away his ability to see the truth for himself.

Another parent, John, realizes that his child must write her own story, and that to shelter her from that story and that experience merely delays the inevitable: the (adult) return of the repressed.

So what is Hollow Face? A ghost?  A disturbing memory transformed into a monster?  A sentient manifestation or symptom of repression?  

In the end, it doesn’t really matter.  It matters only that fear is acknowledged and faced instead of denied and repressed.

Intruders is a beautifully-crafted horror film, and an extremely emotional one. It suggests that if parents don’t face their own fears, they’ll pass that very flaw onto their children. What is repressed -- the ghosts of the past -- may not just return in the parent’s psyche, but in an offspring’s as well.  

And that’s one unhappy ending you don’t want to risk.

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