Over the past decade, suspense thrillers with black protagonists have multiplied to previously unknown heights, and like all great cultural developments on planet Earth, we have Beyonce to thank. The success of her 2009 film Obsessed helped convince major Hollywood studios (or more precisely, a single studio, since most black thrillers have come from Sony and its subsidiaries, notably Screen Gems) to greenlight similar “psycho thrillers” No Good Deed, The Perfect Guy and When the Bough Breaks, along with less “stalker-y” suspense fare like The Call and Breaking In. Although movies like Lakeview Terrace and Perfect Stranger preceded Obsessed, the Beyonce vehicle was an unexpected success that, with nearly $70 million at the US box office, was one of the highest-earning Fatal Attraction-styled thrillers in history. The “urban thriller” sub-genre has since proven reliable, consistently turning a profit on modest budgets and moderate distribution.
Fast forward to 2019, and Screen Gems is still at it with The Intruder, which, like Obsessed, revolves around a successful young black couple being tormented by a deranged white interloper who becomes infatuated with one of them. Rather than call the cops, as the White Handbook for Getting Rid of Pesky Negroes apparently dictates, however, the white baddies in these films resort to anything — including murder — to remove the obstacles in their way. (To be fair, race is never really implied as a factor in The Intruder or Obsessed…unlike real life. Sigh.)
Michael Ealy, who was the villain in The Perfect Guy, is a good guy this time around, playing San Francisco ad exec Scott Russell. He moves with his writer wife, Annie (Meagan Good), to their dream home in Napa, a city whose population is 0.6% African-Ameican, so…there goes the neighborhood! It’s a sprawling, secluded country house whose previous owner, a 60-ish man named Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid), has lived there his entire life. His great-grandfather built the home in 1905, and it had been in his family since then, so he’s understandably attached to it. But just HOW attached goes beyond any reasonable expectations, as he shows up almost daily after the Russells move in, giving them advice on the building’s upkeep, balking at their design aesthetic and even taking it upon himself to mow their lawn.
Initially, this feels like a toothless set up for a thriller — like if one of the Property Brothers had a psychotic break — but it ends up delivering solid entertainment value after a listless start. Veteran writer David Loughery (Dreamscape, Star Trek V, Passenger 57) also penned Obsessed and Lakeview Terrace, so clearly he’s in his wheelhouse here, and while the script breaks no new ground, he knows the expected beats and pacing and how to render scenes that have you yelling at characters who are just stupid enough to place themselves into precarious situations but just smart enough that you don’t write them off as paint-eating idiots.
Deon Taylor, one of the few black filmmakers who’ve specialized in horror/suspense over the past decade, sticks to directing this time around and leaves the writing to Loughery — to which anyone who’s seen Meet the Blacks can attest is a smart decision. The result is Taylor’s best film to date, the freedom to focus on directing perhaps allowing him to hone the final product more than his past efforts.
Regardless of what you think of the quality of Taylor’s work — which has generally been solid but underwhelming with a consistently polished look — it’s impressive how his dedication to the craft has led to a steady growth in the prominence of his releases. He began with direct-to-video fare like Dead Tone and Nite Tales, moved up to limited theatrical releases like Chain Letter, graduated to wider, 1,000-screen theatrical releases like Meet the Blacks and Traffik and now, The Intruder marks his biggest release to date, opening on over 2,000 screens and pulling in more than $35 million at the box office — beating higher-profile genre films like Child’s Play, Hellboy, Brightburn and Happy Death Day 2 U in the process.
No doubt contributing to The Intruder’s popularity is the likable, recognizable cast. Ealy and Good are compelling leads, even when the dialogue gets a bit sterile, and Quaid ends up more unnerving than his resume of “all-American everyman” roles would lead you to believe. Granted, that doesn’t mean he’s scary or particularly intimidating as Charlie; he’s just…a creep. Like “old man in a trench coat flashing his saggy balls” gross. Quaid seems to be reaching so deep within himself to overcome his good-guy image that it looks like he pulls a muscle every time he’s asked to do something ominous. It ends up as an over-the-top performance (not helped by certain lines that are equally desperate to come off as “crazy”) that’s more pervy and constipated than dangerous or scary.
The object of his pervy tendencies, of course, is Good’s character, who’s subject to leering voyeurism and attempted rape. As cringe-y as these scenes are, though, I found myself feeling a conflicted pang of appreciation seeing a black woman in a movie as an object of attraction outside of her race without her having to be a slave or a prostitute…so, um…hooray?
In truth, the closest thing hinting at any sort of racial element to the story (other than the turnabout-is-fair-play instance of the “white friend” dying) is the fact that rough-n-tumble Charlie is a gun lover while the urbane Scott is adamantly opposed to owning firearms because years earlier, his brother was shot down “in the street.” (The fact that Charlie frequently wears a red baseball cap — an automatic trigger in America today — isn’t lost on me; F you, Anaheim Angels!) This plot point lends an intriguing, if fleeting, political undertone to the demographic division of “old white rural dude vs. young black urban couple.”
A dozen years into his career as a feature filmmaker, Taylor appears to be hitting his stride with The Intruder and the upcoming Naomi Harris crime thriller Black and Blue. There are a few awkward moments in this movie, but they appear to be more the result of tonally inappropriate music and editing than direction. It will be interesting to see if he can take a cue from the likes of Jordan Peele and continue to elevate the expectations of black horror cinema.