Earlier this year, Keanu Reeves proved that he could still kick some serious a** as the unstoppable John Wick. Forget everything you learned from that movie because, in Knock Knock, the fifth offering from horror wunderkind Eli Roth, he plays a frumpy father for the first time in his career. And he is as lame, try-hard and susceptible to the weaknesses of his own fragile ego as one imagines a forty-something architect/ex-DJ residing in the LA hills would be.
Cast utterly against type, Reeves is Evan, a likeable, content, if slightly bored husband and father who’s left alone for the weekend when two hot young things (Lorenza Izzo and Ana De Armas) turn up at the door, soaking wet, and looking for help. Being the good guy that he is, Evan indulges them with some dry towels and flirty banter. Before he knows it, things are getting a bit steamy (literally) and Evan, sadly, finds himself powerless to resist. All is well until the morning after when he discovers the two ladies making themselves at home and quite, er, reluctant to leave.
Knock Knock wears its intentions on its sleeve; from the massive “Directed By Eli Roth” title hovering ominously over Evan and his wife’s bedroom door, to the throbbing, TV movie-esque score, and the slow tracking shots of the gorgeous family home (stocked with more disgustingly happy family photos than anyone could possibly want or need), we know to expect something dark. What’s surprising, then, is how dark it gets without Roth succumbing to his usual tricks.
This is a largely bloodless affair, save for one horrible incident involving a fork, with the suspense wound up so tightly that, by the time it begins to unravel, it’s not even really a relief any more. Roth, a pioneer of the torture cinema sub-genre, exhibits a subtlety and a restraint here that, judging by his previous work, one wouldn’t think him capable of. Unable to rely on gore, as he usually does, to ramp up the scares Roth instead establishes a premise that, although ludicrously contrived at times, is quite horrifying.Supposedly a loose remake of seventies shocker Death Game, Knock Knock turns the story into a kind of Hard Candy-esque morality tale for the modern age (if that movie had snorted a line or two of coke, perhaps). And, for the first half, it works really well, with the two femme fatales dazzling their way into Evan’s life before gradually revealing their true intentions. However, once they’ve established their game-plan and Evan is bound and gagged, as it were, the seams begin to show and the plot contrivances become more and more glaring.
Reeves, for his part, does a fine job as sad sack Evan, basically a good guy who makes a mistake and ends up really regretting it. The ladies fare less well, with newcomer Ana de Armas growing increasingly shrill as she shrieks that Evan is her daddy and, in one particularly strange sequence, essentially rapes him. Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife and also the lead in The Green Inferno, does sexy ingénue better than she does crazy eyes, but is more believable as a gun-toting harpy than her companion.
There’s a borderline misogynistic tone to Knock Knock that is more disturbing than the premise itself. The camera leers, the girls are utterly one-note and, as the movie drags on, it becomes increasingly clear that we are supposed to be rooting for Evan in spite of how much of a dick he’s been. However, weirdly, the movie manages to be quite misandrist, too, positing the idea that all men are pigs and that no one can resist temptation–with absolutely no exceptions. Roth may be trying (and failing) to subvert our expectations, but even the catalytic threesome is sexier than it should be.
The screenplay, co-written by the director himself, leaves a lot to be desired, with everything sign-posted to within an inch of its life, for example in an early sequence where Evan cockily tells the two girls he could easily take them if things were to go south. Reeves also has to deliver a monologue, during which he compares the previous night’s shenanigans to free pizza, that is so cringe-inducing it rivals that of Nicolas Cage in the much-maligned Wicker Man remake.
It’s testament to Reeves that he manages to sell this moment to us, while also spouting throwaway insults about the girls being “fucking crazy bitches”. The main issue with Knock Knock, perhaps, then is that Roth isn’t exactly sure what he wants to say, or what he wants his characters to say. The film was made following the difficult, jungle-set Green Inferno shoot, after which the director wished to do something in a more hospitable environment, and his exhaustion shows through in the mishmash of ideas.
Although he should be commended for stepping outside of his comfort zone, as those who caught Inferno on its limited festival circuit can attest, that film, although gorier and more distinctly Roth-esque than this, is a greater achievement. It’s smart, evocative and disturbing, whereas Knock Knock tries its hardest to freak us out but ultimately doesn’t quite go far enough. By the time it reaches its conclusion, the film has completely run out of ideas and it settles on a predictably pessimistic note.
Asking more questions than it answers, but loaded with tension and less predictable than it could have been, this film is a decent effort from Roth that gives more away about how drained he was following Inferno than he probably intended. Die-hard fans will be disappointed by the lack of blood and guts, but the unconvinced may be pleasantly surprised by how well the gore-hound can dial it down, even if it all begins to fall apart about halfway through.
Thanks to widely-publicised distribution issues, it’s likely both European and American audiences will see Knock Knock before The Green Inferno, something which Roth himself has admitted is a shame. In fact, it might actually be a blessing in disguise as his fourth movie is more daring, different and cohesive than his fifth. And it will look even better following this dishevelled, albeit bravely different, effort.
WICKED RATING: (5/ 10)
Director(s): Eli Roth
Writer(s): Eli Roth, Guillermo Amoedo, Nicolás López
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana De Armas
Studio/ Production Co: Dragonfly Entertainment
Length: 99 minutes
Sub-Genre: Home invasion