Intruders: why can’t thrillers just be thrilling?

John Simms' latest drama overcomplicates good, clean scares, says Alison Graham

I don’t like woods. Or rather, I don’t like walking in woods. I blame The Blair Witch Project, that modern Grimms’ fairy tale about a trio of hapless student film-makers who take their cameras into dense forest to explore the legend of a murderous witch and, after nights of torment, are never seen again. Only their terrifying camcorder footage remains…

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The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece and one of my favourite horror films. The downside of watching it frequently on DVD during the past 13 or 14 years is my consequent aversion to all things bosky. Before family woodland walks I want to know exactly where we are going, if there will be consistent mobile phone reception, how far we are likely to stray from the road/centres of population and if there are going to be any hills. Actually the latter is nothing to do with fear, just laziness.

On one particular lung-clearing hike on New Year’s Day someone thought it would be fun if we walked through a very long, disused railway tunnel in the pitchest blackness. Of course, I insisted I first had to see light at the end of this tunnel before I could even be tempted into the deeper soupy darkness. Again, thank you, Blair Witch Project.

I mention all of this because The Blair Witch Project was directed by Eduardo Sanchez, who also directs episodes of the new BBC Worldwide-funded American supernatural thriller Intruders (Mondays BBC2), starring John Simm and his American accent. In Blair Witch Sanchez and co-director Daniel Myrick did wonderful things with darkness, shadow, sound and suggestion. There was no gore, just a steady tap, tap, tap into our fear of the dark.

Sanchez is great with the night-time bits of Intruders, too; there was a chilling scene in this week’s episode at a motorway “rest stop” that beckoned a familiar thump of fear. But Intruders trips up, like most TV thrillers, because it has too much time to say too little. While The Blair Witch Project was an 80-odd minute, tightly focused, perfectly formed essay covering one terrifying long weekend, Intruders has to fill eight episodes.

And, just like Sky Atlantic’s The Leftovers (above), it has to be self-consciously complicated. I had no idea what the hell was going on in The Leftovers and similarly I’m grappling with whatever it is that’s happening in Intruders (I haven’t read the Michael Marshall source novel). What is the significance of the number nine? Why do people keep saying, “What goes around comes around?” And why does a man in black keep shooting people at close range?

The problem is I just know that there’s a really good thriller lurking in there somewhere; it just keeps getting lost amid too much characterisation. Thrillers shouldn’t be about characterisation, they should be about thrills. There’s a series of scenes that yawn on and on this week involving Simm (a bitter ex-LA cop) and his wife (Mira Sorvino), who’s gone a bit peculiar.

This would all be fine and dandy in a straight-forward drama about a collapsing marriage, but in Intruders this sequence serves only to distract us from whatever drivingly sinister plot we, presumably, will at some point discover.

There’s nothing wrong with scaring the hell out of your audience, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. If supernatural horror is done well it can be a fantastically satisfying vicarious thrill. And you’ll never want to go down to the woods again…

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Intruders is on Mondays, 9.00pm on BBC2