In an era so fraught with horror movie clichés that we feel the need to parody the entire genre every two years or so (a la the Scream and Scary Movie franchises), it’s a miracle that any maverick moviemaker is brave enough to impart a touch of insight to the same genre that considers The Ring a respectable attempt at horror filmmaking.

But that’s exactly what director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who brought us the acclaimed 28 Weeks Later in 2007, does with Intruders, an expertly written and superbly acted thriller in which family man John Farrow (Clive Owen, Children of Men) struggles to save his teenage daughter, Mia (Ella Purnell, Never Let Me Go), from the nocturnal clutches of an evil face-sucking apparition known only as Hollowface.

The ghostly villain haunts both Mia in London and a younger boy growing up in Spain, in both cases drawing the hapless children’s parents into his increasingly treacherous nightmare, intensifying the realism of their terror. Hollowface’s modus operandi is simple — he steals into the children’s rooms, slowly approaches them, and rips off parts of their faces, hoping to construct a mask for himself that will replace the vacant abyss lurking beneath the hood of his oversized cloak.

The face-stealing itself is enough to lend an intensely creepy vibe to Intruders, with its implications about identity loss — a metaphor that can terrify the most blasé horror fan while still getting through to younger viewers. The fact that Hollowface targets children, who typically have such tenuous senses of self in the first place, is even more chilling. While a child’s fear of ghosts and goblins is not to be diminished, Fresnadillo prioritizes the deeper existential fear that lies at the root of this — the absence of expression, experience, recognition, and identity. Hollowface represents death, yes, but also death-in-life — for what is death really but an utter loss of self?

Above all, Fresnadillo crucially remembers that he should be telling a story about people first and fear second. This means, of course, that the characters stand out more than the gimmicks, and while Intruders has its share of heart-racing suspense, it doesn’t sacrifice the substance of its characters to cheap thrills, overbearing music, and false alarms of people jumping out of the shadows.

This may cause some to criticize the film as insufficiently “scary,” but, thankfully, Fresnadillo doesn’t seem concerned with conforming to the rigid expectations demanded by the limited horror label. Instead, he creates a captivating story that transcends the horror genre as we know it and awakens fears we thought we overcame as children.

While the film’s climax is a bit too hurried to justify the intricate and sophisticated build-up, Fresnadillo more than makes up for this minor flaw by perfecting other easily overlooked storytelling devices that contribute to a smooth and seamless viewing experience. He proves highly skilled at manipulating the temporal domain to both reveal plot twists and conceal secrets, and his expert use of point of view becomes abundantly clear in retrospect.

Owen is riveting in his portrayal of a devoted father who is just as panicked about his own sanity as his daughter’s safety, and the supporting characters’ relationships are all authentically resonant, from the sometimes strained — yet ultimately respectful and trusting — connection John shares with his wife (Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten), to the friendship between the Spanish boy’s mother (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) and the well-intentioned priest (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds) who advises that an exorcism is not necessarily the solution.

Intruders offers something far more sophisticated than your typical run-of-the-mill thriller, delving into the realm of fiction to arrive at a truth both depraved and transcendent, demented and soothing. There is a line between the fear of the supernatural and fear of the familiar, and Fresnadillo’s story lives on its boundary, revealing the disconcerting intricacies of the psyche and the extent to which we can trick ourselves — something infinitely more terrifying than ghosts and goblins.

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