Between his Hostel features, Cabin Fever and his minor role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, Eli Roth has secured himself the position of modern horror cinema’s troublesome, occasionally deplorable, but overall harmless fratboy. A cheeky prankster who trades away subtlety for gleeful rolls in the dirt, encouraging us to pat his belly as we drop our manners and sensibilities for something darker and seedier. Even his supervisory work on Netflix’s not-that-YA supernatural series Hemlock Grove has imprinted the show with pit stops of surprising excess and gratuity. Roth is a child of exploitation cinema, in short.
Knock Knock will likely do little to change that perception. Roth has, it seems, had his chances to cultivate an audience. The decision on him has been made. And while Knock Knock undeniably carries that same shock-jock mentality, it does temper it to a degree, offering a little more than it’s trashy trailer suggested (but, y’know, not much more).
Keanu Reeves (taking an exec producer credit also) stars as Evan, a successful architect and former DJ married to a successful artist named Karen (Ignacia Allamand). They have two playful young children and a little dog named Monkey. This delightful – even corny – family unit live in a lavish home designed by Evan and situated close to the US / Mexico border (the landscape looks Mexican, though their cars have California plates).
Their perfect lives (and Roth gleefully ladles on the syrup from the off) are about to take a turn, however. Karen is taking the kids away to the beach for a couple of days, leaving Evan to hunker down with his work. That night he busies himself on his latest project while classic rock blasts from his Pioneer sound system (Pioneer get some healthy placement throughout) and torrential rain pours down outside. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. Evan answers to find two drenched young women on his doorstep, lost and shivering. Being a gentleman he invites them in so they can use his computer and dry off. They nominally introduce themselves as Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas).
While Evan does his best to accommodate the young women and to help them out of their soggy situation, both Genesis and Bel start an escalating seduction that Roth mines for suspense by setting it against the clock (Evan has a taxi coming for them). Nevertheless, try as he might to wriggle away from them, Genesis and Bel are resourceful. Evan succumbs to temptation. The taxi gets tired of waiting.
The next morning, Evan realises the enormity of his misconduct, but it’s too late; the girls have run riot and suddenly their charming act takes on a very sinister edge. But Genesis and Bel have more than blackmail in mind, and the next 24 hours for Evan are destined to be a living hell. Imagine Michael Haneke’s Funny Games skewed through the mentality of those party animals from Spring Breakers and you’re about halfway there. All the while Roth plays on the expectations that his previous works have instilled in the viewer. The threat of violence is far more prominent than the act itself, marking Knock Knock out as his most suspenseful film yet. The aforementioned seduction sequence of act one is by far the film’s high point, as Reeves, Izzo and de Armas form a constantly shifting triangle buoyed by an engaging and carefully constructed run of dialogue. Watching Evan squirm from chair to chair in his living room as the two young women attempt to cosy-up to him in their dressing gowns should clue viewers in to the strong streak of schadenfraude that Knock Knock plays on throughout.
Because while Evan is painted as the good guy here in some respects (Reeves gamely makes him something of a dope), the movie thankfully makes no attempt to justify his fall from grace and infidelity. Later on, as things escalate, Evan chastises the girls for tricking him, eschewing himself of any blame – what man could resist? – but his tirade is painted as laughable and feeble. He is to blame – at least at first – and in a sense deserves everything he gets. Knock Knock is a morality tale; compromise yourself and prepare for the consequences.
In fact, there’s very little beyond that here. Later on, an opportunity to dig into the complexities of male rape is unsurprisingly skirted in favour of keeping the tone irreverent. So once Evan has fallen victim to the girls, the remaining hour is devoted to a game of cat and mouse. The finale is almost a foregone conclusion, the remainder of the enjoyment sourced from just how Roth and his screenwriters Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolás López intend to get us there. Key to this are Izzo and de Armas who take to their brattish roles with commendable gusto. de Armas’ Bel in particular is disarmingly crazy at times. The film hits fever-pitch as she dresses as a school girl to Evan’s dismay while Genesis scrawls on the bedroom mirror in lipstick. These scenes along with plenty of others acknowledge Roth’s penchant for the exploitation genre (there are plenty of ogling shots of de Armas bent over etc). Roth almost asks the audience to become complicit in the perversion. Izzo, too, is more than up to the task here. Taking control of the situation numerous times, one senses that her Genesis is really the mastermind of this scheme, and Evan is far from their first victim.
Roth keeps tongue firmly in cheek throughout, allowing Knock Knock more good grace than I had honestly anticipated. Take it too seriously and you’ll simply be derailed. Even Reeves’ character name winds up part of an elaborately staged punchline, while the film’s wicked final joke should leave audiences with no illusions; the gore may be dialled down on this occasion, but Roth is still wearing that Cheshire cat grin. This is a campfire yarn told with all the gaudiness required; the film’s garishly bright colour palette a signifier from Roth that it’s only a movie, stupid. If you’re not here to have fun why the hell did you buy a ticket? Haneke would never approach it this way.