I’m a fervent admirer of Cabin Fever. It’s as promising a debut for an aspiring horror maestro-cum-filmmaker can be, finding sustainable strength in the gleeful absurdity lacing its protagonists’ entirely dire predicament. Since then, Roth’s repute as a credible talent has noticeably diminished, what with his name being tied to middling genre fare as both a director and producer. I can’t properly critique his abilities given my unfamiliarity with anything other than the aforementioned breakthrough and (most of) Hostel: Part II, however to ignore a name that’s become synonymous with the genre these films ascribe to is a slight disservice. With Knock Knock generating what I thought I remembered to be positive buzz coming out of Sundance – and Halloween just around the corner – I decided to give Roth’s latest an earnest spin. This was a mistake.
One of Knock Knock‘s many flaws is that it lacks an appreciable engagement factor. Little exists to pique one’s interest outside of the standard, somewhat slow-burning lead-in to the “good stuff,” and when things actually do pop off, the film devolves into an increasingly bizarre mess that generates more laughs than chills. For the uninformed, Knock Knock‘s title refers to the unsolicited Lolita house guests that happen upon Keanu Reeves’ meek Evan Webber’s palatial abode during a rainstorm. He’s lied to about the truth behind their presence, they put on bath robes and, well, shit goes down.
What’s labeled as a deadly “cat and mouse” game by the film’s synopsis belies the very definition of this descriptor. Reeves’ Evan is such a helpless, whiny and generally weak-willed individual that – coupled with the bratty inauthentic caricatures that torture him – no one’s worth rooting for as Knock Knock tries to play a shitty all-grey morality card. Can Evan’s misdeed be a result of malicious entrapment or is a he a delusional pig? Are these girls supposed to be likable exactors of justice or are they especially young psychopaths? The obvious if reductive answer is all of the above, but when the events that take place are so wantonly unsubtle and non-thrilling it’s hard to determine where your sympathies should lie.
Knock Knock manages to further trip over its own feet by way of the talent on display, or lack thereof. Reeves has never been a particularly apt character actor, rarely succeeding in convincing viewers that he’s anything but a clean-cut rendition of his younger, fun-loving self. Even in last year’s John Wick, throughout which he exacts crushingly violent revenge on many a wrongdoer, Reeves’ agelessness and physical dexterity complement the character’s purposefully soft-spoken demeanor. Knock Knock on the other hand requires him to display a considerable amount of dramatic chops, of which the man simply doesn’t have. A late-in-the-game monologue and subsequent pleas for his life fully support this claim as profanity-laced tirades teeter on the brink of self-parody.
I haven’t seen something this promising devolve into something so woefully misguided in a long time. Knock Knock is ostensibly a tone-deaf mess burdened by the horrible people it features doing horrible things. Even when it’s source inspiration, 1977’s Death Game, is taken into consideration by those who’ve seen it, I find it hard to believe that anyone would consider this as anything but a failed update. It’s awkwardly, moreover unintentionally humorous by way of dialogue, key events and its central performance, and worst of all, effective thrills are entirely nonexistent. Coupled with palpably lax cautionary commentary on the perils of this particular home invasion scenario, Knock Knock could conceivably sneak its way into the ever-expanding canon of so-bad-its-good misfires, that is if anyone actually enjoys what Roth and the gang have produced.