The standard bearer of unbearable thriller intensity in2016 seems to be Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (despite potential arguments to be made for Don’t Breathe or 10 Cloverfield Lane in that regard), but that film’s distinction is very nearly surpassed by the first hour of the home invasion cheapie Emelie. The amazing trick Emelie pulls of is in matching Green Room’s sense of dread & helplessness without explicit onscreen violence. The film instead builds its terrorizing thriller tone off parents’ paranoia & vulnerability in leaving their children in the care of a babysitter they do not know. Emelie very nearly develops into something incredibly unique & memorable, but kinda blows it in the final half hour when it loses focus and becomes a blandly faithful genre exercise. It’s very much adept at building tension to a fever pitch, but seems unsure on where to go once it’s time for the hammer to fall.
Similar to the home invasion eeriness of films like Marytyrs & Funny Games, Emelie heightens its terror by setting it against a peaceful, serene suburbia. It opens with a babysitter abduction in plain daylight, kids blissfully biking & playing around the crime. The replacement/imposter sitter who takes over the missing girls’ job, the titular Emelie, is the source of the film’s menace. There’s an incredible amount vulnerability in parents allowing access to their home & their entire world to a complete stranger. Emelie lords over their house while they celebrate an anniversary, a building a sense of dread that only the audience is in on. To the kids, Emelie is a fun, “no rules” babysitter who allows them to draw on the walls, eat all the cookies, and destroy the living room. Her platitudes like “What if I told you that you did not have to be a boy or a girl or a human or anything?” & “Sometimes it’s okay to destroy things for fun” speak to the kids’ sense of power in the imagination while screaming at the audience’s sense of “Get the kids the fuck out of the house!” Emelie’s anarchic sense of babysitting strategy becomes even more unnerving once objects like guns, tampons, pythons, and pornographic VHS tapes come into play & it becomes clear exactly what she’s interested in the children for. Unfortunately, the destination Emelie drives its plot toward isn’t half as interesting as the journey and the film’s concluding half hour could easily be mistaken for just about any other home invasion thriller/kids in danger horror you could name.
It’s a shame Emelie succumbs to Third Act Problems™ as much as it does, because it very nearly nabs the top spot for thriller of the year before mimicking every thriller of every year. As soon as the deranged babysitter cuts out the lights & wages war with the oldest child in her care the film starts to fall apart. It loses track of promised threats – screwdrivers, axes, bullets – and isn’t sure how to sell the payoff of the more inventive threats that do come into play: fireworks, sportscars, walkie talkies, etc. Emelie holds its own for as long as it can, even finding engaging ways to incorporate the couple’s anniversary celebration & the babysitter’s flashback past into the always worsening situation at home in an effective broadening of the story that doesn’t loosen up the tonal claustrophobia. The dialogue also uses the corny acting inherent to a cheap production to its full advantage, selling the child actors’ authenticity in declarations like “[Cologne] is like perfume for daddies!” and findings strange terror in lines like “I found my Cubby.”
It’s rare that a thriller can get away with being this tense while showing so little onscreen violence. Emelie knows exactly what buttons to push to sell the discomfort of its children in peril scenario, especially when the kids are forced into exposure to above-their-age-range experiences like witnessing a python’s feeding habits or passionate fornication. If it had somehow worked those same provocations into its desperate-for-distinction conclusion I would’ve been much more enthusiastic about its value as a complete product. I really like Emelie, but with a better third act I could’ve fallen madly in love with it.