Eli Roth’s fifth feature hits screens only a few weeks after his fourth thanks to the two-year delay that held up the release of ‘The Green Inferno’. As a change of pace, ‘Knock Knock’ is an erotic thriller rather than straight horror. However, it’s also his weakest movie to date despite being packed with some fun ideas.
Following Roth’s career falls somewhere between fun and frustrating. The goofball gore comedy of ‘Cabin Fever’ suggested tremendous promise that ‘Hostel’ seemed to confirm… and then the talented kid never grew up. Sure, he made some fun little things like the ‘Thanksgiving’ trailer in ‘Grindhouse’ or the propaganda film-within-a-film in ‘Inglourious Basterds’, but anyone holding their breath for an Eli Roth breakout project likely died years ago.
Keanu Reeves stars as Evan Webber, an architect forced to stay home and work over Father’s Day weekend while his wife and children spend a few days away on a planned trip. His house is pretty and his family seemingly perfect, so clearly that means that things will go horribly, horribly wrong. Trouble arrives in the unassuming form of two beautiful young girls named Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas). They knock on his door (see title, which was probably ‘Father’s Day’ at some point) soaked from a rainstorm looking for a party at the wrong address.
Being a) a polite guy and b) sexually frustrated, Evan decides to let them in from the rain to call them an Uber. They’re pleased and also insist that he put their soaked cloths in the dryer, after which they start talking about being stewardesses from out of town who delight in casual sexual liaisons, particularly of the threesome variety. The scene sounds like a Penthouse letter and plays out like one too. But it’s also an Eli Roth movie, so this isn’t exactly a glossy episode of ‘Red Shoe Diaries’.
The next day, Evan wakes up filled with guilt over his naughty Father’s Day and finds the girls tearing up his kitchen making breakfast through a process that somehow involves eggs splattered on the walls. He asks them to leave and they refuse, but decide now is a good time to mention that they’re underage and he could go to prison if they wanted. Understandably, that kind of kills the romance bubble and Evan is peeved. He thinks it’s blackmail at first, but it’s not. It’s a game, kind of a funny game, even. It takes a little while to get there, but once Roth’s movie reveals itself as a home invasion yarn with a pair of beautiful models using sexual blackmail as their primary weapon before tipping over into the psychotic, ‘Knock Knock’ turns into something pretty fun, if also something fairly stupid.
The erotic thriller abides by Roth’s usual dramatic structure of 50% uncomfortable tension and 50% genre insanity, only this time there are no flying entrails or dangling eyeballs at the end of the tunnel. Violence is surprisingly restrained by the gorehound’s standards, but it’s still undeniably Roth’s movie given the almost mixtape-like vibe of movie-reference plotting that tips its hat to everything from Paul Verhoeven’s early thrillers to Michael Haneke’s bourgeoisie-bashing cold shockers, and of course Takashi Miike’s ‘Audition’.
As usual, Roth’s movie was born of other movies rather than anything approaching an original idea that he was inspired to tell. When the movie gets kicking, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The guy knows a thing or two about audience manipulation and tongue-in-cheek humor based on audience perception. There are certainly some good sexy, nasty, and darkly funny times to be had here.
Unfortunately, the big problem is that Roth just doesn’t quite know what he’s trying to say with the movie or why it even exists beyond a clever pervy premise. Izzo (who is not coincidentally also Roth’s wife) and de Armas do quite a good job of bouncing from vivacious, flirty male fantasies to twisted psychotics with an unfortunate game to play. Their plan is filled with nasty little surprises and bursts of morbid humor. However, Roth never adequately provides a reason for why they’re getting up to this particular brand of no-good in the first place. At times, that ambiguous motivation makes things creepier, but eventually it becomes frustrating. Likewise, the power shifting games of sexual politics just don’t add up too much and eventually feel a little dumb. Roth didn’t need to turn ‘Knock Knock’ into some sort of powerful cultural statement or anything like that, but delivering something resembling a satisfying payoff (be it narrative or thematic) really would have held this messy movie together.
‘Knock Knock’ certainly has plenty of charm thanks to the delightfully naughty premise, the amusing performances (even Reeves is quite enjoyable, despite some inevitably lapses into wooden acting land when he can’t help himself), the twisted sense of humor, and plot twists that make the movie an even sicker joke with each turn. The trouble is that Roth just didn’t seem to think this one out much beyond the premise and it ultimately straddles the line between exploitation trash and clever adult thriller rather awkwardly, not going far enough in either direction to satisfy either audience.
Granted, if the movie were Japanese and subtitled, it would likely be taken more seriously and bestowed more generous (if undeserved) praise, but Roth still needs to stretch himself a bit further next time if he wants to rise out of horror. It’s fine to merely touch on big ideas in movies primarily designed as blood-soaked thrill rides, but once you step out of the gallows, the work needs a little more substance.