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Non-Review Review: The Intruder

The Intruder aims for “pulpy delight” and ends up in “trashy mess.”

The biggest issue with The Intruder is the fact that no two people involved in the film seem to have a firm idea of what exactly they are working on. This is no surprise. Director Deon Taylor doesn’t seem entirely sure what exactly the film is from one scene to another. The Intruder is formally a fairly standard horror movie, a home invasion thriller anchored in social anxieties. It is part of a rich vein of cinematic horror that can trace its development through films like Pacific Heights. It is that classic nightmare of a house guest who just won’t leave.

Fatal A-tractor.

The issue is that The Intruder tries to inflect that standard genre set-up with contemporary anxieties about race, gender and class divisions in contemporary America. The Intruder is the story of a wealthy black family that moves from the city into a spacious rural home, displacing the red-blooded middle-aged white guy who has lived in that house for his entire life. Simmering resentments bubble beneath the surface, with an escalating sense of threat and uncertainty as the conflict between these two sides (and these two perspectives) builds to a head.

The biggest problem with The Intruder is that it has no idea what to do with any of these elements, and no idea how to integrate them into a convincing or engaging horror film. Instead, the movie becomes a tonal car crash, packed full of strange choices that never add up to anything especially compelling or exciting. The Intruder pitches itself as a biting social commentary in one scene, a goofy self-aware horror spoof in another, a clumsy domestic drama in another. None of these elements fit together, creating a movie that feels less comfortable in its own surroundings than any of the protagonists.

Dennis the Menace.

Horror is a fascinating genre, even in its crudest of forms. Horror has a brutal and primal reactive streak in it, responding to the anxieties and hears of a given moment in an almost impulsive manner. Horror is often liberated from the burden of “prestige”, because it is anchored in a primarily emotional and involuntary response. Horror gets at what scares the audience, even if what scares the audience isn’t always internally coherent or particularly flattering. This gives horror a vitality that is often lacking in other genres that have to be more sensitive to social or political context.

This is at least part of the reason why horror films are able to so candidly embrace the fears of the moment. Other genres seem to struggle with the challenge of how best to approach the current era of political and social uncertainty for fear of being didactic or awkward, but horror can just go straight for the jugular. Get Out remains one of the best studies of race in contemporary America. The Purge: Election Year was broad and not entirely successful, but it very much encapsulated the national mood. (In contrast, something like The Curse of La Llorona exposed other less flattering contemporary anxieties.)

Totally lit.

So it makes sense that The Intruder would use the trappings of a fairly standard property horror in order to explore the divides in the contemporary United States. The Intruder is not exactly subtle. Scott and Annie Howard are a young and dynamic couple who are looking to escape the trappings of the big city for something more rustic. It is too much to describe the pair as millennials; actor Meagan Good might qualify given that she was born in 1981, but Michael Ealy is at least seven years too old. Nevertheless, the pair embody a certain liberal urban stereotype; the work in design and advertising, love modern art, are rich.

The pair are juxtaposed with Charlie Peck, the owner of Annie’s dream house. Charlie is introduced shooting a deer and charging up on its corpse. This is perhaps the most subtle piece of the film’s characterisation. Charlie is a rugged middle-aged all-American manly man. Indeed, the women of The Intruder seem drawn to Charlie on a primal level, with his old-fashioned DIY skills in contrast to the less traditionally masculine Scott. Charlie doesn’t seem particularly keen to sell his house, but Scott and Annie convince him; they negotiate two hundred thousand off the asking price and keep the furniture.

“Don’t worry, the script’s not that bad!”

The Intruder immediately emphasises the politics of resentment that define the relationship between Charlie and Scott. The movie suggests that Scott is intimidated by Charlie’s machismo; Charlie’s use of a hunting rifle becomes a bone of contention between the two. Charlie is quietly contemptuous of both Scott’s wealth and his lack of respect for the institution that he has purchased. Walking Scott through the living room, Charlie notes his old small television set. “You probably got a big flatscreen,” he muses. When Scott tries to haggle on price, Charlie objects, “If you can’t afford it, you probably shouldn’t be here.”

The Intruder never tackles the obvious racial components of this central tension head-on, and that is probably for the best given the movie’s clumsiness. However, it is hard not to watch The Intruder and get a sense of a broader cultural clash within contemporary American society. The film’s basic premise suggests an obvious allegory, the anxieties and uncertainties of an older conservative white generation who fear replacement by a younger and more diverse population. (Indeed, The Intruder is rather overt in sexualising this anxiety, particularly with Charlie’s obsession of Annie.)

A villain so terrifying, that he’ll make Scott soil himself.

This is all lurid trash, and there’s nothing wrong with any of this; in playing out these cultural anxieties as an allegory in a cut-rate horror movie about the fears simmering beneath the surface of modern society. The problem is that The Intruder has absolutely no idea what to do with any of this. The film is a spectacular misfire, with no single cohesive tone. The nature of The Intruder changes repeatedly and dramatically, often on a scene-by-scene basis, with no real sense of what the movie is actually trying to say beyond the structuring theme of this culture war between Charlie and the Howard family.

The tone swerves awkwardly, even within scenes. Many of the more obvious beats are so overplayed that they become unintentional comedy. It isn’t enough that Charlie announces himself to the black family on his property with the sound of a gunshot, director Deon Taylor offers a low-angle tracking shot of Charlie running frantically through the trees to create a sense of menace. It all seems too much. Indeed, the most menacing scenes involving Charlie focus on the character’s stillness. This is a horror about a man who won’t give up his house; it is more terrifying to imagine him unmoving than to see him running.

Cooking up some tension.

The film seems genuinely afraid of stillness or of silence. The Intruder refuses to let discomfort build organically like the heat inside a pressure cooker, instead demanding constant relief. At one point, Charlie joins the Howards for Thanksgiving dinner. The conversation turns to plans to remodel the house as Scott struggles to open a bottle of wine. The camera presses in on Charlie, emphasising his obvious discomfort with the idea that the Howards would want to change anything about his house. It’s an effective social horror scene, because it’s all about what’s lingering beneath the surface.

However, The Intruder doesn’t trust itself to deliver on this. So the film delivers an awkward cut-away in which Charlie’s discomfort is expressed through a daydream of brutal violence against one of the guests. It is a moment that serves to deflate any tension, while also removing any sense of mounting suspense. It is always obvious that Charlie’s discomfort will escalate to violence, because this is a horror film. However, there is always the question of what exactly will be the spark that ignites the powder keg. In contrast, Charlie’s violent daydream suggests that the spark is nothing more than opportunity.

Making himself at home.

The Intruder is openly contemptuous of its audience, unwilling to let them sit in silence or trust them to follow a formulaic plot. It is very clear from early in the story that Charlie is mentally unstable and that he can’t be trusted. However, the film nevertheless insists on a couple of incredibly awkward exposition scenes that spell out exactly what any half-awake viewer already knows about Charlie. At one point, a stranger casually provides backstory to Scott at a local coffee shop. The third act features an expository phone call which treats that revelation that Charlie really (yeah, really) likes that house as a shocking twist.

This unwillingness to just be comfortable in its own skin leads to a number of other serious miscalculations that further derail the film. The Intruder has no attention span to speak of. Scenes are punctuated with terrible jokes or dull exposition, much of which seems to have been added in postproduction and is played over scenes of Scott and Annie driving. There are strange narrative dead-ends that do nothing but eat up screentime, such as the suggestion that Scott might be unfaithful – or interested in being unfaithful. There are two completely gratuitous softcore sex scenes that are shot luxuriantly.

Giving it his best shot.

To be fair, there are glimmers of a more enjoyable film trapped just below the surface, one which owns its pulpiness. Dennis Quaid seems to be acting in a completely different film than anybody else, but he’s having a lot more fun. Charlie is a standard horror movie antagonist, and there’s nothing especially interesting about him, but it is fascinating to watch Quaid embrace his inner ham. Few actors can make the line “I was just getting some potting soil” seem skin-crawling creepy, but Quaid pulls it off. It’s a cheesy, overwrought, melodramatic performance. However, it at least has a pulse.

The Intruder is a disappointment, even by the standards of disposable trashy horrors. It is entirely disposable, but not nearly trashy enough to be enjoyable.

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