For the past few years I’ve been bemoaning the decline of the mid-range genre film: the action movie or horror flick that’s neither a micro-budget, found-footage opus straining against its resources, nor an oppressive studio behemoth. That mid-range has always been the breeding ground for many of America’s best, most enduring films, where masters like Don Siegel, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann plied their trade under the classical studio system, and where more recently auteurs like John Carpenter and Walter Hill have kept the genre film tradition alive.
So alive that, looking at 2015, we seem to be in a kind of genre renaissance. In just the last few months we’ve had Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, David M. Rosenthal’s The Perfect Guy and the Dowdle brothers’ No Escape, all smart, stylish thrillers that bend the conventions of their genres to fulfill intimate, personal agendas and expression. Economical in the best sense, with just enough scale to tell their stories without smothering them, these films cram a surprising number of ideas and issues into their compact running times. Not all of these movies may be as great as Hill’s or Carpenter’s best work, but then again, what is?
Knock Knock makes a play for that echelon. Eli Roth’s second theatrical release in a matter of weeks thanks to some distribution snafus with The Green Inferno, Knock Knock is pure cinematic oxygen, a movie that aims to be a classic and brilliantly succeeds at everything to which it aspires. Part cautionary tale, part satire, part horror film, part erotic thriller, it’s Fatal Attraction for the social media era—yet that description does little to indicate just how riveting it is. This is a movie of supreme confidence—it starts strongly and only gets better in every scene—a thriller that invites plenty of comparisons to the works by masters of the form: Hitchcock, Polanski, De Palma. It earns these comparisons.
The story, loosely inspired by an obscure 1977 drive-in flick called Death Game, follows Evan (Keanu Reeves), an architect and family man who’s stuck at home working on Father’s Day weekend while his wife and kids leave town. Alone, he answers the door to a couple of attractive young women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) who show up seeking help; it’s a stormy night, and they’re lost. They casually flirt with the uncomfortable Evan, until he starts to get a little more comfortable with the situation…and before long, a chain of events is set in motion that has the potential to destroy Evan’s carefully constructed domestic life.
You can probably imagine the general direction of Knock Knock’s story going in, particularly if you’ve ever seen Play Misty for Me or the aforementioned Fatal Attraction (or Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, for that matter). What you can’t predict are the details, or Roth’s elegant execution—or maybe you can, if you’ve been paying attention at all to what the director has been doing for the past 13 years. Starting with Cabin Fever and continuing on through his subsequent directorial efforts (particularly the masterful and still underrated Hostel: Part II), Roth has always been one of the most subtle and expressive visual stylists in horror. There are no gimmicks in his work, just clean, clear frames in which the director uses color, camera movement and composition to pack the maximum number of ideas into the minimum possible minutes of running time.
“Subtle” might seem like a strange word to describe the work of the guy who ended Hostel: Part II with a man whose penis is cut off and then fed to a dog, but it’s precisely the boldness of Roth’s horror that has blinded some critics to the sophistication of his technique. Roth is rigorous about finding the correct form through which to convey his ideas. Thus, Hostel transitions from the palette and camera style of an ’80s teen sex comedy to a bleak and desaturated, Schindler’s List-inspired hellscape, and The Green Inferno begins in a New York with compositions and color modeled on the work of Sydney Pollack and Nora Ephron and ends in a jungle with visual strategies borrowed (but not stolen, because Roth always adds his own twist) from Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. Like his friend and colleague Quentin Tarantino, and like Martin Scorsese and De Palma before him, Roth rabidly absorbs film history to apply it to his own work—carving out and then insuring his own place in that history.
With Knock Knock, Roth’s sense of formal control is evident right from the beginning, as he gracefully injects visual details implying that all is not well in Evan’s superficially happy home. Long tracking shots snake in and out of rooms in the house, revealing that this is an environment dominated by Evan’s artist wife, while his identity is confined to one room where he works and listens to his records. Roth takes his time in these opening scenes, establishing not only character but geography, so that when all hell breaks loose in the second half of the film he can move as fast as he wants without fear that he’ll lose the audience.
Roth doesn’t need to resort to cheap tricks, because he knows what he has: a relatable concept he milks for all it’s worth. The relatable quality comes from Roth’s audacious and skillful manipulation of point of view; if there’s a major innovation in Knock Knock (beyond its use of social media to raise the stakes for its protagonist), it’s that the very notion of the protagonist him- or herself is called into question. In Play Misty For Me and Fatal Attraction, the filmmakers and audience are pretty clearly on the side of the male “heroes” played by Clint Eastwood and Michael Douglas, respectively—we’re never really supposed to identify with the women stalking them, no matter how much complexity the actresses might bring to their roles. In Knock Knock, Roth is up to something different. A standard male-fantasy-gone-wrong horror film mutates into something more, as his camera shifts our perspective back and forth between Evan and the girls, and then between the girls themselves. This makes for both a uniquely frightening thriller—as the safety provided by a more conventional point of view structure is ripped out from underneath the audience—and an emotionally resonant, provocative one: Everyone in this movie has their reasons, and everyone is guilty.
This is nothing new for Roth, who has always been a kind of horror Jean Renoir in his determination to respect multiple points of view within the same narrative. Hostel: Part II makes this idea explicit via a dual structure that allows equal space to its victims and victimizers. That film, with its spectacular performances by Heather Matarazzo, Roger Bart, Bijou Phillips, Richard Burgi and others, proved Roth to be something else that he rarely gets credit for being: one of our finest directors of actors. The confrontational nature of his graphic horror films has probably kept Roth from being appreciated on these terms, but that should change with the (relatively) milder Knock Knock, designed to live or die on the strength of its performers. A few supporting players aside, this is basically a three-hander between Reeves, Izzo and de Armas, and they deliver every demanding thing that Roth asks of them. Which is a lot—not only are all three required toplay every note on the emotional scale, but they must retain their sense of reality while serving Roth’s elevated, satirical tone.
Reeves in particular is outstanding. One late scene in which he veers from anger to devastation to bemusement to terror and back again is the finest—and funniest and saddest—piece of screen acting I’ve seen all year. Izzo and de Armas as well could easily have amounted to stereotypes or sleazy fantasies, but in their and Roth’s hands, their characters are fully dimensional young women who are destructive, tragic and at times perversely heroic—getting all of this across with a minimum of explicit backstory.
Yet, in most ways, the greatness of Knock Knock is so self-evident that I’m optimistic people will finally recognize Roth for what he is: a profoundly serious filmmaker with an endless sense of enthusiasm for cinema. There’s thought and care in every frame of Knock Knock, as much as in any film that I’ve seen in 2015. That the picture also happens to be the most diabolically entertaining black comedy since The War of the Roses is just the icing on the cake.
Writer: Eli Roth, Nicolas Lopez, Guillermo Amoedo
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas
Release Date: October 9, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.