After an eight-year hiatus from the director’s chair, Eli Roth has returned, the same frustrating filmmaker as before. Home invasion thriller Knock Knock, which opened this past weekend, is a mess of attempted schlock and realized idiocy. It’s an exhausting experience to sit through.

Like his debut and sophomore efforts, Roth has a way of motivating his characters to do the unthinkable. It’s quite clever really: he writes their actions to suit the scene. If you’re hoping for some modern day commentary on the deconstructed male gaze and its inversion look elsewhere. Without established characters whose journeys rattle along the tracks of their personalities, there’s no foundation. No solid ground for anything worthwhile to spring forth. The trio of leads fly off the rails whenever they like, because Roth isn’t interested in character.

This is all about the orchestration of camp. Something that’s impossible to ensure. Bad movies evolve into camp movies. It’s a process that requires the slow passage of time to fade away the awfulness and blunt the bad, leaving a ridiculous cultural document that’s so harmless it cannot be anything other than embraced. We do love nostalgia.

Nevertheless, Roth still attempts to manufacture that organic process.

In the film, Keanu Reeves plays a lofty LA architect left alone for the weekend when his loving wife and kids venture off on a trip. That night, a couple of rain-soaked girls knock on his door with a paper-thin story that somehow works like a crowbar, leveraging them into Reeves’ house and shortly after, his pants. One comparison to sum up the remainder of the running time would be Fatal Attraction meets Funny Games. Up to the halfway point — after he bones them both — you wonder; might Roth do something brilliant? Hostel toyed with the midway genre-switch, he’s got a first act set-up that’s gagging for the same unexpected twist. A plot point you never saw coming. A tonal shift. Something. Anything.

What happens next is entirely expected. The sexual politics of this film, albeit built up in the hammiest way possible, were ripe for exploration. But they’re abandoned; all men are still pigs and all women still have daddy issues. There’s hope — which I also abandoned about 40 minutes in — that at some point Reeves’ character will maintain consistency and not behave exactly how two girls less than half his age want him to: a domesticated buffoon desperate for an ego (and cock) polish. However, that would negate Roth’s plan: to empower two of the most irritating characters in cinema. Smug, entitled brats exerting their feminine mystique over a man isn’t half as interesting as say, a confident, well-adjusted person doing the same (see: Funny Games). But the experience of watching their grating, shrieking, manipulative, self-involved antics has the desired effect on Reeves’ character, who embraces the silliness and ridicule thrown his way. He becomes a second-rate simulacra of Nic Cage circa-Deadfall, and the final act settles into a comfortable rhythm of attempted meme-generating dialogue.

Will this movie be remembered fondly in five, ten, twenty years? Is there a chance that the forced schlock might add an extra veneer of cult vintage? Who knows. Roth’s got a talent for film making. He has written and produced plenty of solid B-movies. As for his own efforts as an actual filmmaker, the director, there’s probably talent hidden somewhere beneath all those layers of pomp. You just can’t shortcut your way into people’s hearts.


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