Eli Roth’s first three movies — “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel” and its sequel — were effectively unsettling horror efforts that also operated on the level of keen social satire. That’s a difficult gamble many filmmakers attempt but few
pull off with such gleeful entertainment value intact, and perhaps they set the bar too high. Needless to say, Roth’s two followups behind the camera, the cannibal shocker “The Green Inferno” and now the home invasion dark comedy “Knock Knock,” fail to achieve the same tricky balance.
Still, while “Green Inferno” struggled from its shoddy production values and empty commitment to over-the-top gore, “Knock Knock” at least provides an enjoyably ridiculous Keanu Reeves performance and some clever stabs at satirizing white collar America. The movie’s uneven tone and ridiculous twists never quite gel, but “Knock, Knock” is so eager to please that it’s hard not roll with the absurd depravity on display — which has been the essence of Roth’s appeal from the outset.
Though aspects of its premise cull from the 1977 exploitation movie “Death Game,” much of “Knock Knock” plays out like a poor man’s “Funny Games.” Reeves plays Evan, an established architect who enjoys a cozy family life with his wife and two young children. But when the rest of his brood leaves town for a two night vacation, the good-natured Evan stays home and winds up with some unexpected visitors in the middle of a punishing storm: A pair of eerily seductive young women, Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas), who claim they’ve lost their way to a party.
Gaining entrance into the befuddled Evan’s home, they begin a peculiar game of sexual persuasion, beating down Evan’s fidelity to his wife until his passions take over. Then the morning comes and they won’t leave — which is the least of his problems, as the young women advance a masochistic agenda that involves tying him up, blackmailing him and defacing his property. Reeves, understated as usual, doesn’t have to do much aside from reacting with equal doses of confusion and horror — and that’s pretty much all the movie calls for him to do.
The mysterious nature of the girls’ anarchic plot holds enough intrigue to sustain the movie through some its clunky dialogue and uneven exposition, but once the pair’s full maniacal tendencies come out “Knock Knock” suffers from the tedium of its premise. When one of Evan’s colleagues shows up, his captors’ deadly response plays out with a slapstick quality that speaks to the movie’s loose, ineffectual tone. Lacking any fancy camerawork or other stylistic devices to enhance the sense of dread at hand, “Knock Knock” settles for a farcical approach that simplifies the events at hand. No matter how bad things get for poor Evan, the movie never strays from the sense that it’s all just one big joke.
Which, of course, it is. Reeves himself provides much of the comedic inspiration as he spends at least a quarter of the movie bound and gagged while steadily losing his mind. The character’s increasingly frantic state generates some humor in the way that Reeves has become something of a punchline who transcends the movies he’s in. But “Knock Knock” isn’t smart enough to capitalize on the meta nature of his role; at the end of the day, Reeves does nothing for the character that any number of other actors could achieve. Like everything else, he’s basically a prop in the movie’s goofy, macabre trajectory. Offering little in the way of depth, “Knock Knock” never lands the scary-funny tone of Roth’s earlier movies; instead, it drowns in cheap thrills.
The only truly pointed humor in Roth’s script (co-written by Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolas Lopez) comes from the role of social media in the girls’ scheme. A climactic gag involving Facebook hits its mark, but it also amounts to a relatively basic payoff considering everything leading up to it. More than that, there’s something oddly paradoxical about Roth poking fun at the simpleminded narcissism of modern society in a movie that follows suit.
“Knock Knock” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution