In Knock Knock, Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) is a successful architect with a lovely and talented artist for a wife (Ignacia Allamand), two great kids and a glorious house in a secluded, pristine neighborhood. Sadly, the happily married Webber has to stay home and finish a big project on Father’s Day weekend, while the rest of his brood head off to the beach. Alone in the house, rain coming down, Evan hears a knock – and opens the door to two beautiful young women, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) who say they’ve been stranded by a taxi while looking for a party and can’t get their phones to work.
Hesitant at first, Evan lets the girls in while offering them towels and calling Uber to give them a ride. But in the 45 minutes that the cab takes to get there, the women make themselves at home, engender some frank talk about their sexual exploits and end up naked in Evan’s bathroom – where they quickly overcome his protestations and get his clothes off too. A guilt-ridden Evan wakes up the next morning after their romp to find the girls still there and in no hurry to leave – but things take a decidedly non-sexy turn as the two women begin to wreak havoc on the house, Evan and his wife’s belongings and work, and ultimately Evan himself.
On one hand, I would have to say that Knock Knock is probably horror director Eli Roth’s best film since his debut, Cabin Fever. It’s quite low-budget (it all takes place in the house except for one scene) and, as with all his films, the acting leaves something to be desired (more on that later). But for once I was semi-invested in the main character and interested to see how the story played out – as opposed to exercises in nihilism like the two Hostel films and The Green Inferno, which just indulge in the audience’s expectations for torture and violence and mostly give not a shit about anything else. Knock Knock is Roth’s most gore-free film yet; there’s no problem with blood and guts per se, especially in a horror film, but at least for once he proves he can make an entire movie without giving in to his own seemingly juvenile impulses to soak the screen in viscera.
Reeves remains one of the most stiff major actors in cinema history, but at first his awkward demeanor works fully in his favor. During the opening scenes, as Genesis and Bel grow more flirtatious and Evan realizes that there is a classic sexual fantasy scenario unfolding in his living room, Reeves appears genuinely uncomfortable: they sit close to him, he switches seats; one of the girls feels his bicep, he pivots away with an excuse at the ready. He brings up his wife and kids repeatedly. The actor’s own rigidity as an actor helps him play out the scene and at least give Evan some veneer of decency and nobility.
Of course, that all goes down the drain in the shower that he finds the two women frolicking in a few minutes later. And even if it seems that Evan succumbs a little too quickly, Knock Knock’s biggest strength is that it will perhaps get male viewers (and their aggrieved dates) wondering how far they could be pushed before falling prey to the girls’ fleshy charms as well. Once the morning comes, however, the girls reveal their true nature – which in itself flirts dangerously with the misogynist dark side of the threesome fantasy (i.e. willing sexual playthings turned into “crazy bitches”). That’s when Reeves’ limitations as an actor come gratingly back, and where Izzo and Armas find it difficult to walk the line between menace and camp.
That turning point in the film is also where Roth’s worst tendencies once again rear their heads, even if they do so in the more restrained fashion mentioned earlier. Sure, the blood doesn’t flow as copiously and gleefully as it does in his earlier efforts, but the back half of Knock Knock is still largely an exercise in how much torment, both physical and mental, Evan Webber can stand. There’s also no context for it; there’s no indication at all that Webber has any sort of past history with adultery (he’s really working alone in his home when the girls come calling – Roth doesn’t even have him looking at porn) and while the motivations of the girls are hinted at – they seem to have done this before as a way to exorcise transgressions earlier in their own lives – their characters are never explored enough beyond their roles as sexpots/predators. There is lip service (no pun intended) given to both the open sexual mores of millennials in the age of Tinder and to the sexualization of youth – the girls tell Webber they’re underage at one point – but like the half-baked ideas about activism in The Green Inferno, they are undeveloped and incomplete.
While Knock Knock does generate suspense and even some empathy for Reeves’ character – which could be a first in a Roth film – it finally fits neatly alongside the other movies in his filmography and reinforces him as perhaps the most morally conservative horror filmmaker working today. Whether you’re visiting a strange country (Hostel), pursuing activism under ethically dubious circumstances (The Green Inferno) or giving in to a night of sexual indiscretion (Knock Knock), Roth makes sure that you are not just punished, but that the punishment is on an almost Biblical scale. I suppose we can be thankful that he pursued a career as a filmmaker and not, say, as attorney general. Ed Meese would have nothing on this guy.
Knock Knock is out in theaters and on VOD Friday (October 9).