Knock Knock may not be as violent or bloody as Roth's previous efforts, but there's still something devoutly unsettling about its mental state. It crosses some lines which simply should be left well alone. Competent for its genre, but not a pleasant (or even a particularly fun) watch by any stretch of the imagination.
Controversial gore-fiend Eli Roth returns to the director’s chair at long last, with another stab at original horror, his first fully-distributed effort since the fall of his Hostel series in 2007. Despite being an unmistakably loud voice within the genre, the production arm of Roth’s horror empire has somewhat suffered creatively in recent years, but with Knock Knock he looks to return to his former dubious ways and this time, with a more psychological twist to the proceedings. So, has the former wonder-kid rediscovered his mojo? Not quite.
Chronicling the positively demented events of a single weekend, Knock Knock follows straight-laced family man Evan (Keanu Reeves) as he goes about his work whilst his family depart on holiday without him, leaving him home alone. His newfound tranquility is soon snatched away however when, in the wake of an outrageous storm, two lost girls turn up on his doorstep, soaked and phone-less. Playing the good samaritan, Evan allows them inside; a decision, he reasons, any father would make, but one he soon comes to regret when the evening suddenly takes a dark and torturous turn.
If such a synopsis sounds a little too close to the likes of a poorly-produced porn film, it’s because for its first half at least, Knock Knock is just that. Keanu Reeves’s Evan is introduced as very much the everyman – a hard worker who adores his family, but quite often longs for escape. So when two insanely attractive young women turn up on his doorstep wearing very little clothing – which they proceed to very quickly strip out of – it feels almost as if he has waltzed hopelessly into nothing more than a shoddy male fantasy.
True, such a blatant delusion only forms the very basic groundwork of Roth’s overall narrative, but with pacing this slow, he would never have you believe it. In fact, this porn-like story set-up ends up feeling like it might well take over the entire film, with Reeves bumbling his way through the naive older-man routine in positively painful fashion. Minutes feel like hours as Roth’s ropey dialogue drags his characters round and round in circles to the point where, even when the film does finally progress into its second, considerably more watchable half, patience is wearing far too thin to really care at all.
Having said this, as the promised trauma finally begins, the reasoning behind such a sluggish start does eventually become clear: the dark twists Roth deals out land with far more impact than expected, really hitting home the psychological aspect of his intended horror. Reeves’s Evan is positively helpless, completely incapable of ever hitting back at his aggressors, a fact which becomes more and more frustrating as the film progresses, but also something which Roth very obviously intended to happen. He demands his audience to feel both uncomfortable and unsafe throughout, which is quite possibly the definition of what a horror seeks to do, although here something doesn’t feel quite right, namely down to the fact that there’s not even a hint of catharsis present.
The attraction of horror is that it allows the mastery of one’s fears: audiences want to see what terrifies them on screen, but they also want to see it defeated in some way, shape or form, even if only briefly. That’s what makes it fun for some audiences. By removing any sense of this from Knock Knock, Roth has created something which is not just angry but also deeply unpleasant to watch – you are literally paying to watch a normal, everyday, do-gooder be tortured for an hour and a half. To some (no doubt Roth’s die-hard fans), one imagines that this is nothing short of cinematic bliss, but to the large majority of the population however, it is really quite the opposite.
As much as some cleverly-placed cerebral jokes hint at there being a higher-order to the film, they frequently tie themselves in knots, ultimately leading to nowhere and thus marking Knock Knock as nothing more than another unhealthy dose of torture porn, from the very man that seemed to make it so popular.
Unless you’re as deeply devoted to such fully-fledged sadism as Roth apparently is, proceed with caution on this one. It may appear competently made, and the levels of gore are not particularly excessive (bar a few grisly moments), but the sincerely dark hold the film places on a person’s mental state is what is truly unsettling about it. But ultimately it’s whether you see that as a compliment or a criticism of the film which really establishes whether or not you would enjoy its content.
Knock Knock (2015), directed by Eli Roth, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment Film Distributors, Certificate 18.