“Natalie Meta’s submissive approach to serious thrills and limp script can’t muster any of the bite a psychological horror like this needs”
Argentina director Natalia Meta’s sophomore feature, The Intruder, is billed as a demonic-tinged psychological thriller, and yet, even at 95 minutes, this sleepy nightmare feels dead on arrival. It’s not an entirely hopeless film, filled with interesting ideas and emotionally stirring potential. And with Érica Rivas at its centre, who is always captivating – despite the sinkhole she’s been stranded in this time – you’d be forgiven for getting your hopes up.
The film opens with a somewhat pointless and ultimately disconnected prologue that presents the story as a potential unpicking of mental trauma by way of haunting. Inés (Rivas) is a voice actress and frequent member of the choir. Her work-life, creatively tethered to her anxiety and the idea of ownership, involves dubbing over violent Japanese horror films, and you’d imagine this is a fairly stressful occupation. It’s a tidy bridging of character trait and plot. Inés jumps on a plane, where we’re introduced to her obnoxious, controlling boyfriend Leopoldo (Daniel Hendler). No sooner than she’s sat down, she has slipped into a nightmare and witnesses Leopoldo strangled to death by the flight attendant. No worries, Inés jolts awake and everything is back to normal save for the bloody scratch she’s inflicted upon Leopold’s face – he’s not bothered, far more insulted by the embarrassment of the situation. When they land, we realise they’re taking a romantic holiday and an uncomfortable karaoke sequence reveals Leopold’s control in deeper, sinister ways. ‘Inés’ he scolds whenever she looks away in total mortification.
Later, Leopold corners Inés about her nightmares, convinced, and rather stupidly, that Inés is communicating with her ex-boyfriend in her dreams. Naturally, Inés locks herself in the bathroom – she’s can’t be dealing with this silly man. When she emerges, she’s shocked to find Leopold dead in the swimming pool below the window, and now the title credits appear, twenty minutes late and reflective of the film’s delayed thrills which only come to life in its intriguing final scene. Perhaps the oddly drawn out inclusion of this prologue ties in with the film’s sense of dislocation, of one thing not quite matching up with the other, but it comes across as a meandering, tonally jarring distraction that never reconnects with the paranormal psyche of the film’s core.
On a surface level, Meta’s film is more or less an unconvincing mashup of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) and Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), with a splash of Giallo thrown in. Those are two mesmerizing films that swallow you whole with head-pounding atmosphere. By contrast, Meta’s submissive approach to serious thrills and limp script can’t muster any of the bite a psychological horror like this needs. You can see the film’s interesting ideas – of voice, identity and, later, gender – at play, threatened by an internal invasion, but it’s handled in such a flat way that none of the admirable intent can overcome how dull it is to sit through.
Reeling from the death of Leopold, Inés spends time with her mother (Cecilia Roth) and auditions for a choir role, which is interrupted by the booming interference of a mysterious organ tuner, Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). He weirdly courts Inés, showing up at parties and seducing her with a trance-like dance that suggests he belongs to the nightmare reality that has followed Inés from her dreams into the real world. Like Inés, Alberto hasn’t been developed well as a character. Aside from being rubbish at tuning an organ, his presence mostly feels like an obstacle for Inés to either ignore or confront. The characters are cyphers for Meta’s ideas more than anything we can latch onto as an audience, so you end up ghosting through the film as Inés does, neither asleep nor fully awake and caught frustratingly inside a paralytic plot that drifts from one energy-sapping scene to the next.
Meta constantly reminds us of Inés’ internal struggle with various ear-splitting sound effects from Grudge-like gurgles to the high-pitched screeching of electrical meddling. It does work in conveying Inés as a woman unravelling into madness, haunted by sounds that live inside her head and tamper with the external world. Unfortunately, when it comes to horror, sound is only as scary as the images that accompany it. Barbara Alvarez’s cinematography feels as uninterested as Meta’s attention to compelling plot. For a film all about distortion and dread, this nightmare is shot with a real lack of dynamism. More interesting films can be seen in the background of Inés’ sound recording studio.
Where the film eventually ends up is exciting, but what should’ve been a crowd-pleasing musical climax feels like a clap after everybody has already left the show. The Intruder disappoints as a psychological thriller, with no scares and a tame atmosphere, but it also severely under-shoots as an entertaining exploration of compelling themes. All of the ingredients are there, but they’ve been swished into a diluted, forgettable cocktail that’s more of a nightcap than a rush to the head.
Director: Natalia Meta
Producers: Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli, Matías Roveda, Natalia Meta, Fabiana Tiscornia
Cast: Érica Rivas, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Daniel Hendler
Release Date: 2020
Header image courtesy of Film Factory