I’ve never bothered watching an Eli Roth movie before, mostly because I associate him with the mid 00s torture porn aesthetic that I generally try to avoid in my horror binges. Roth has a way of sneaking into other projects I’m interested in, though, and I’ve started to notice over the years that he seems to have a sense of humor to his work that I had missed out on from the outside looking in. If you judge Roth solely by his fake Thanksgiving trailer for the Grindhouse project, his performance as “The Bear Jew” in Inglourious Basterds, and his production work on the campy body horror Clown, he comes off as much less misanthropic than his usual reputation would suggest. As sick as his sense of humor seems to be, I’ve come to think of Roth as something of a prankster. If you need a brief glimpse of what I’m getting at, look to the trailer for Roth’s recent home invasion piece Knock Knock. Everything from Keanu Reeves’s strange line deliveries to the film’s cheap digital look to its winking title suggests that it’s supposed to play like a joke. I’m not sure that I have enough context to settle that question of Roth’s tonal intent on my own, but I can say that if Knock Knock was indeed meant to be a setup for a joke, the punchline was constantly amusing, making for a decent entry point into a career I’ve been too grossed out to approach for more than a decade now.
A nasty exploitation thriller that resembles a direct-to-DVD knockoff of Funny Games, it’s tempting to view Knock Knock in the same light as more typifying Eli Roth ventures like Hostel or Green Inferno. Whereas those titles have a pointed central message (usually about cultural tourism & American entitlement) & a dedication to gut-wrenching gore, however, Knock Knock is much more deliberately ditzy. Keanu Reeves plays a doting husband who’s alone for the weekend in his beautiful home when two young women knock on his door soaked & shivering in the rain. He’s initially kind to the girls, but far from predatory; things eventually get too steamy for him to resist, though, as the girls flirtatiously pressure him into cheating on his wife over the course of a night lifted straight out of a letter to Penthouse. Of course, as soon as he cheats his doom is sealed and the girls immediately switch from sexual fantasy to violent nightmare. They destroy his home, yip like wild dogs, tie him up, sexually assault him, and stab him with food utensils. You could search for meaning or a sense of morality in their gleeful chaos, maybe something about the gender reversal of predatory sexuality or about how all men are liars & cheats under the surface, but the film feels far too deliberately empty-headed for any of those themes to register. Instead, all that shines through is a Daisies-esque dedication to pointless, childlike abandon (except without the political context or attention to visual craft). Knock Knock is much more of a nihilist comedy than a pointed satire of gender politics and the psyche of the modern American husband/father.
One of the reasons it’s difficult to tell if the comedy was entirely intentional here is that it largely comes across in the performances. Keanu Reeves has a bewildering way of balancing between overacting & underacting, with no measured sense of middle ground, that plays so damn weird when he’s given enough space to chew scenery. In Knock Knock, he reaches Nic Cage levels of distracting performance, a one man camp spectacle that often feels as if he’s making fun of his own lines instead of trying to sell them. There’s an obvious humor to his delivery of lines like, “Wowww, chocolate with sprinkles!,” “Do you kids want to live in a box?,” and “It was free pizza!,” but they’re far from Keanu’s only amusing line readings. Something about the way he says things like, “What’s the point of this?!,” “I’m a good person. I made a mistake,” and “I’m an architect, so I believe that things happen by your own design,” points directly back to how hacky & corny the script is on a fundamental level, to the point where the film plays more like sketch comedy than erotic thriller. Actors Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo have an obvious blast playing Reeves’s seductors/tormentors, but even their over-the-top, childlike exuberance somehow can’t match the strangely inhuman way he quietly delivers his lines. Knock Knock truly is Reeves’s Wicker Man (2006) or his Vampire’s Kiss. It’s just waiting to be picked apart and cut down to YouTube memery.
The only question I have is exactly how much Roth was participating in the humor of this film. Knock Knock features a female-on-male rape, raises questions about childhood sexual abuse & incest, and indulges in the exact modes of life-threatening violence you’d expect from a self-serious home invasion exploitation piece, so it’s tempting to believe the director meant for his audience to take the film at face value. However, there’s just as much evidence to the contrary onscreen. Besides Roth’s prankster past & the joke plainly hinted at in Knock Knock‘s title, there’s a visual play to the movie that matched Reeves’s weirdo comedy energy, particularly in the way the frame lingers on details like the Hollywood sign & strategically-placed portraits of its protagonist’s family. If Knock Knock were meant to play as a straightforward thriller about predatory sexuality & the dangers of infidelity, I’d say it was a thorough misfire. As a nasty comedy overflowing with pointless nihilism & memorably campy performances, however, the film resonates a consistent success. I may not know enough about Eli Roth to decidedly say where this film falls on that divide, but I can honestly report that it amused me for the entirety of its runtime, which was a lot more payoff than what I expected to take away from this one.