(On-demand video, October 2012) If you’re wondering why this Clive Owen film was never widely distributed in North America, keep in mind a few things: First, Intruders is a modestly-budgeted European production. Second, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an unremarkable horror movie with a confusing threat, a deceptive structure and muted chills. There isn’t much to say about the average thrills of seeing children and their parents cope with bogeymen, especially with the by-the-numbers scare sequences. There’s one neat twist in this film, but it pushes credibility at the same time it manages to explain a few troublesome plot points. Indulgent viewers will feel that the film has something to say about the power of storytelling and how our minds create reality; others will just complain that the monster has no clearly-identified limits and that it seems made up as it goes along. Fortunately, Clive Owen himself is better than the average material he’s being served, while Carice van Houten has a welcome supporting role as his wife, and Ella Purnell has a strong enough performance as a tormented girl to suggest bigger roles later in her career. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo knows how to create atmosphere and doesn’t embarrass himself with the limits of his budget (although some of the skyscraper scenes look a bit off from a special-effects point of view.) Intruders ends up living in the netherworld of the unremarkable horror film: good enough to avoid disappointment (or cult-classic awfulness), but not really good enough to stick in mind aside from that troublesome plot twist.
(On DVD, August 2011) For a director who helped re-shape American popular cinema with four solid hits and one legendary failure in-between 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven has been really quiet since the artistic failure of Hollow Man in 2000. To see his only film since then, you’d have to find Zwartboek, a World War 2 thriller in which a beautiful young Netherlander woman is stuck between the occupying Nazi forces and the local resistance movement during the last few days of the war. While, at first, Zwartboek seems to be just another resistance film, the increasingly messy tangle of allegiances makes for a far more interesting narrative, and a striking statement on what happens after victory is obtained: Accounts are settled, resentment surfaces as aggression and accusations are more effective than doubt. Produced with what feels like a decent budget by Netherlander standards, Zwartboek convincingly re-creates the period, and features more than decent production values. There are even a few chases and explosions to reassure us that, yes, it’s that Paul Verhoeven. But much of the film belongs to the actors, starting with Carice van Houten playing a merciless role as the heroine. (WW2 cinephiles will also recognize Christian Berkel from other similar movies as Valkyrie, Downfall and Inglourious Basterds, among many others.) Amusingly for a film featuring an unusual non-Anglo-Saxon viewpoint on WW2, Canadians get a fairly good portrait as the liberators toward the end of the story. Weaker points include a framing device that robs the film of a bit of suspense, and a clunky first act that seems to run around in coincidental circles, meeting everyone twice in the small universe of The Hague. Still, while the film’s solid European origins clearly show in the amount of casual nudity and the last act’s lack of moral certitudes, the overall result is an entertaining film that more than holds up to anything else in the world.