Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
Before Knock Knock becomes one of the most annoying movies of the decade, there is hope in its first act. The beginning of director Eli Roth’s movie actually does a good job establishing the character of Evan (Keanu Reeves). We rarely get a glimpse of Reeves playing the role of the family man — of the devoted husband and father. But here he is, kissing his wife, playing games with his children, etc. This is a fresh take for an actor, who as recently as late last year, won back a cult audience with the action vehicle John Wick. Could we be entering the Keanussance Period?
Roth, who has long been accused of making torture porn, has a new twist on the subgenre with Knock Knock. For this film (set in Hollywood but filmed in Chile), the director tortures us with two of the most unconvincing psychopaths in the history of cinema. It’s as though Roth instructed his wife and co-lead Lorenza Izzo (Genesis) and her co-star Ana de Armas (Belle) to study Sheri Moon Zombi’s performance in House of 1000 Corpses and act accordingly. The two shriek, scream, and alternate between being completely unhinged to totally in control in the blink of an eye. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the plot that exists for about 45 minutes before being dropped in favor of an aggressively told but poorly executed morality tale.
Evan’s family is leaving town for the weekend so that their father of the year can get some important work done. His first night alone sees Evan pumping up the jamz while he attempts to get to work, nearly succumbing to the act of lighting a joint to loosen up. But he doesn’t. You see Evan is a good man. Evan is a good man. Evan is a good man. Are you getting the picture yet? He hears a knock on the door and discovers the young and beautiful Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (de Armas) standing in the pouring rain. They say they’re trying to get to a party nearby, and Evan eventually lets them in so that they can figure out where they need to go.
The women soon claim that the party is actually in another part of town and they are now stranded. Evan calls an Uber only to learn it won’t arrive for another 45 minutes, and the waiting in Knock Knock doesn’t turn out to be the hardest part, but the most entertaining. Roth masterfully directs the scene in which Evan needs to keep moving from chair-to-couch-to-chair in order to evade the flirtatious young women as the minutes tick away. Their car arrives, but the family man makes what turns out to be the mistake of a lifetime.
The next hour-plus of Knock Knock features all the familiar beats of movie psychos on parade. There’s a mock-game show with our protagonist tied up, complete with music and game show lingo (variations of “Let’s take a commercial break” are uttered more than once). The ca-razy duo put on ca-razy make-up! The ladies become clingy and unhinged a la Fatal Attraction. All of this plays out with repeated accusations of “You’re a pedo for sleeping with ‘underage teens!’” as a backdrop. All Reeves is left with is dialogue that consists of “Fucking cunts!”, “Fucking bitches!”, and “You’re crazy!” It’s a waste of what was looking to be an interesting character.
Herein lays the lazy attempts at making Knock Knock into a morality play, if that is indeed what Roth is trying to do here (I gave up after a while). The action is too loud and the performances are too broad to accomplish that goal, so the movie falls well short of becoming the cult classic it’s desperately trying to be. It makes one appreciate the dark comedies of recent years, with E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills serving as a good example. That movie features strong, dark humor, takes us to uncomfortable places, and leaves us curious to discover what’s coming around the next corner. It’s by no means a perfect film, but at least it has a balanced narrative with believable performances from its leads. Knock Knock can’t claim to have any of these qualities.
Roth’s career has taken a turn for the worst over the past three years. He filmed the cannibal-horror film The Green Inferno back in 2012, and it was due in theaters late last year, but behind-the-scenes issues with its distributor have shelved it indefinitely. Knock Knock can’t even satisfy his fans as a placeholder. If you want to see an unbearable, full-length adaptation of the scene in Gremlins 2 when Lenny the goofy Mogwai causes a mess in Billy’s apartment, then Knock Knock is for you. If not, all you’re left with is a film with direction, editing, and dialogue on par with a Lifetime movie. These are low blows to be sure, but Knock Knock deserves to be knocked out.
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