I do not get along with Eli Roth it would seem. I’ve hated his inept, juvenile Hostel movies, and could barely get through two episodes of his awful Hemlock Grove TV show. I worry my dislike of the man is somewhat exacerbated by his inexplicably high profile and popularity, gained more by his acting in Inglorious Basterds than anything he directed himself, and his self-aggrandising. I remember his boasts about how Hostel would be ‘the sickest movie ever’ or something along those lines, or how he actually credits himself as “Master of Terror” on the poster for Clown, a movie he produced.
Still, I want to give Roth another chance, he might not be a good filmmaker, but he does come across as a genuinely passionate fan of the horror genre. I’m still very much interested in seeing his cannibal throwback film The Green Inferno (and should get a chance to soon) but release delays on that movie have rendered it so his fifth directorial effort Knock Knock is actually being released before his fourth. It’s been quite some time since he was last behind the camera too, having spent the last eight years or so primarily acting in and producing other people’s movies such as The Last Exorcism and The Sacrament. Maybe the time off will have allowed him to mature as a filmmaker?
Nope. Knock Knock is every bit as rubbish as Roth’s earlier work, though it does see him tackling some different themes. Keanu Reeves plays a successful architect called Evan, whose artist wife and children are going away for a long weekend, leaving him alone in his luxurious house. Later that night, he’s interrupted by a couple of scantily clad young ladies called Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) turning up at his door. The pair are soaking wet from the rain outside and claim to have gotten lost on the way to a party. Ever the gentleman, Evan invites them in to dry off and call a new taxi.
As they await the car’s arrival, the girls begin to make themselves at home. Their flirty advances begin innocuously enough; expressing appreciation of Evan’s turntables but soon venture into more obvious tactics such as asking him if they can remove their clothes and put them in his dryer. Roth doesn’t manage to create enough tension to enable this opening act to feel like anything more than a big tease before Evan eventually gives in to the pair.
The most frustrating thing about Knock Knock, and indeed Roth’s earlier Hostel, is that the idea behind it is substantial enough to create a decent thriller around, but it never realises this potential. In fact, after Evan’s lapse in judgement it doesn’t follow with the cheating husband angle but takes a different and more absurd turn.
Knock Knock is apparently a remake of a seventies movie called Death Game but the modern film it most calls to mind is Hard Candy, if you removed all of the subtlety and nuance. The next morning, as the girls are busy trashing Evan’s house, he tries to throw them out, threatening to call the police upon their refusal. Here’s when they play their would-be trump card, they tell him that they are underage.
The problem with this is that neither actress remotely looks like they could actually be fifteen (they’re both in their mid-twenties). Evan, a supposedly intelligent man should have called them out on this right away, but he never even questions whether these girls who he knows have obviously been lying to him about many things could be lying about this as well. Moreover, Roth shoots nude scenes from both actresses before they say this, which serves to confirm to the audience that they are not underage.
The film then descends into a series of silly sequences in which the girls threaten and torture Evan, the centrepiece of which revolves specifically around the idea that he is a paedophile. This is when the Hard Candy comparison becomes most apparent, the girls set themselves up as a vengeful team doling out justice to child molesters, giving them their deserved “punishment”. However Hard Candy managed to keep things ambiguous, Ellen Page plausibly looked like she could be fourteen but this was never confirmed or denied, similarly Patrick Wilson’s character did invite her to his house and gave her a drink, but we don’t know for certain if he’s ever abused anyone. In Knock Knock, we know that Evan isn’t a child molester, and even then Roth doesn’t seem to know whose side he wants the audience to be on. There are hints of a darker past for the girls that are later laughed off.
Keanu Reeves is an actor who’s got a lot of criticism over the years, some of it fair, some not. He often manages to choose roles that suit his range such as the recent John Wick, and I especially want to like the guy after that movie. Unfortunately he’s just terrible here; this is the worst performance he’s given in years. He’s often reduced to alternating between profanely insulting the girls and then pleading with them, it’s embarrassing at times. Reeves seems to be trying to takes things to Nicolas Cage levels of over-the-top acting, but he can’t pull it off the way Cage can.
That said, the biggest problem with Knock Knock is the writing. The film is full of atrocious dialogue, bith before and after the craziness begins. There are a couple of overly contrived moments involving otherwise useless side characters, and a bit where the film doesn’t seem to understand how Facebook works too. Roth ultimately builds to a conclusion that’s anticlimactic and unsatisfactory, confirming that the film has nothing to say at all. Roth may have dropped the gore that gave infamy to his earlier films, but he hasn’t found any substance to replace it with.