Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Knock Knock (2015)

[Watch out for spoilers!])

Knock Knock (2015) is Eli Roth’s remake of director Peter Traynor’s Death Game (1977), a disturbing and provocative (if relatively obscure) horror film of the disco decade. 

That film, as you may recall, involves two young woman who seduce and then torture a mild-mannered married man in American suburbia. 

That description, however, likely makes the women sound like the villains of the piece. 

Yet the key thing to understand about the original film is that Death Game’s assignments of blame and villainy are not so clear cut, or obvious.

The apparent protagonist -- the symbolically-named George Manning (Seymour Cassel) -- invites the women into his home, and while his wife is away, indulges in sexual intercourse with them.  He does so without a thought to his family, or his future.

Manning doesn’t ask why the women they have selected him, or much of anything, really, before having sex with them.

And furthermore, one of the two women has also been psychologically and sexually abused by her own father, and begins to call George “Daddy,” thus transferring blame to her new lover.

George becomes the recipient, then, of her murderous impulses; a vehicle for her feelings of revenge and injustice.

By the end of the film, one understands that Death Game is not about two murderous women, but about the easy, unthinking way that some men will put down their obligations and responsibilities for a meaningless dalliance.

As the women in the film point out, they could have visited any house in the neighborhood and the result would have been the same. The problem is widespread, and pervasive, the film seems to state.
Certainly, this is an absolutely cynical and stereotyped view of men, but Death Game remains a bold, controversial, flamboyant work of art; one made in an epoch when the Equal Rights Amendment went down in flames and one could readily (and effectively) make a case regarding systemic injustice towards women.

In terms of the genre I always found Death Game refreshing because -- for a change -- women effectively victimize and terrorize a man, rather than male killers victimizing women.

Turnabout is fair play, right?

With all the dialogue in the 21st century culture of late about the “war on the women,” it seems an appropriate time to remake Death Game and re-consider all these points.

And director Eli Roth has always possessed an edgy visual style, and a willingness (even glee…) to follow controversial stories to their logical end points.

He uses those qualities to good effect here, and yet somehow -- at least a little --- Knock Knock’s messaging seems muddled in a way that it wasn’t in the original film.

The remake seems to be more ambiguous (though not more nuanced) in terms of assigning responsibility for the sad state of affairs at Evan’s house. This quality changes the fundamental nature of the narrative. 


The polemical nature of the material loses some of its (outrageous) potency. Instead we have to weigh sides very, very carefully. And doing so, ultimately, serves no purpose. The conflict, as presented, is not resolvable.

For example, one walks away from a viewing of Knock Knock with enhanced sympathy for the lead character, Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves), instead of understanding that, in some crucial way, there is no excuse for his actions.

In the final analysis, we aren’t asked to consider that society has made Evan’s behavior acceptable (and the women’s behavior deranged), but merely that Evan was unlucky or unfortunate to have answered that knock on his door on the ill-fated night in question.  

Still, there are moments of authentic subversion and perversion in Knock Knock, and for that I credit the always-clever Roth. He takes the material in unsavory directions without blinking an eye, and the purpose of a horror movie, is, ultimately, to trample lines of decorum.  

So Knock Knock? Mission accomplished

Yet I can make the following comparison, which I hope is illuminating, or helpful.

I left a screening of Death Game with a deep understanding of what the film was about, and what it was attempting to convey about our society, and systemic sexism.

I left Knock Knock with no such certainty, or even clarity. My emotions were mixed, and so were my sympathies.  The movie feels like it is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

“I’m an architect, so obviously I believe things happen by your own design.”

A wealthy architect living in Hollywood, Evan Webber (Reeves), recovers from a shoulder injury and remembers his glory days as a DJ on the party scene. 

On Father’s Day, he and his wife, an artist named Karen (Ignacia Allamand), almost have sex, but he is left frustrated when his children interrupt to give him his gifts. Evan’s wife tells him he’ll just have to wait a few days for sex.

Karen and the children leave for the weekend so Evan can complete an important project. But late one night – during a rain storm -- two young women show up at his door, claiming to be lost.  They are Genesis (Lorenza Izzo), and Bel (Ana de Armas). Evan lets them in, gives them towels to dry off with, makes them tea, and calls them a cab.

But, Bel and Genesis seduce him, and they have a threesome in the shower.

The next day, Evan finds that his guests won’t leave. 

Genesis and Bel make a mess of the kitchen, deface his wife’s art work, and their behavior escalates from there. 

When Evan attempts to get them to leave his home by calling the police, the women reveal that they are under-age and that Evan is guilty of statutory rape.  Then, they play a game called To Catch a Predator, in which they ask Evan what should happen to rapists of children.

Should they go to jail? Be castrated? Or be murdered?

Which fate would Evan prefer?

Evan fights for his life, even as Bel rapes him -- calling him Daddy all through intercourse -- and Genesis films the event for posterity, only to upload it to his Facebook account later…

“I’m a good person. I made a mistake. Haven’t you ever made a mistake?”

I suppose the crux of the issue in Knock Knock is Evan’s character. 

Is he, as he believes -- because of his vocation as an architect -- a creator of his own destiny?  If so, then he is guilty, by his own definition, for straying from his marriage and jeopardizing his family for a really exciting lay. He is responsible for his own actions.

Or, by contrast, is Evan a good man who simply made a mistake?

And, as human beings, can’t we offer sympathy and forgiveness, since we all make mistakes?  Forgiveness is not needed, after all, for those who don’t stray.

The opening scenes of the film seem to go out of the way to explain why Evan is not really responsible for his actions. His shoulder injury isn’t healing well, for example, and the painful injury reminds him that he is getting old; that life is short.

The responsibilities of being a parent, similarly, take precedence for his wife, Karen, over Evan’s desire to have sexual intercourse with her.  He can’t get laid, in other words, because his children are always underfoot and always first on the list of responsibilities. Evan has to shame down his arousal and instantly shift to being an approachable, irrepressible, gentle father figure.

And then there’s Evan’s former career as a DJ, wherein he was hot stuff, and in demand. He was…sexy.

Those were his glory days!

So when two desirable, sexually available and receptive young women show up -- soaking wet, no less -- at Evan’s front door, what does he do?

He chooses to have sex with them, and in doing so rage against his mortality and aging. He wants an affirmation that he is still a desirable male, an affirmation we see that his wife has trouble giving him when he discusses his beard and whether or not she still finds him attractive.

In pursuing his vanity, however, Evan throws away his marriage and family life…but the movie makes us understand Evan’s conflict, nonetheless. We are asked to sympathize with him.

And, in a sense, the movie also demonstrates his Herculean restraint.  Evan resists the advances of the women until they are on their knees, naked before him, basically groping his penis. He would have to physically do them harm to reject their advances at that point.

But that’s what he should do, right?

I’m not excusing Evan’s behavior or choice of action, but I should be clear that the film -- rightly or wrongly -- sets up a series of events that help us to understand why Evan might “stray” from his responsibilities. 

But then, as soon as he does, the women decide to teach Evan a lesson. 

With just a little fondling and attention, they got him to throw away everything…for sex. 

What does that say about Evan’s priorities? About his self-discipline?  They even make a joke that they are both carrying his future children too, so it is plain that not only has he strayed from his family responsibilities, he has not used a condom during the liaison.

This makes it possible that Evan has contracted an STD (as a bit of graffiti in the film notes), and also that he has impregnated both of his tormentors.

So by his own admission, Evan is an architect of his destiny, right? He’s made a series of choices that lead him to a particular destiny.  For a while, that destiny is spelled out explicitly as statutory rape.

I think we can agree that these are not good choices.

But we are also asked to consider the idea of entrapment. Do the women shoulder any responsibility for making Evan stray? Or did only his actions and insecurities lead him to stray?  Is he in charge of his choices, and his penis, or did he make a terrible mistake, brought on by extreme circumstances?

The way that Knock Knock navigates that crucible, I think, is what renders the film a bit less than entirely successful.

Evan is responsible for letting the two women into his house, and for fucking them. No question.

But is he responsible for his own rape, which occurs when he is tied up?  Isn’t that the very thing our society argues isn’t true of women in similar situations?  In this case, doesn’t “no” still mean “no?”

Similarly, is Evan responsible for the fact that Genesis and Bel destroy his wife’s life work (her art)?  

How could he have reasonably known they would go on a path of destruction aimed at his wife, not him? 

I get the movie’s metaphor, of course. 

Evan, by having sex with Genesis and Bel, has destroyed his wife’s life; everything she has spent a life-time creating.  Her art represents their family life; their children; their home and hearth.

But again, I don’t think anybody could have guessed that murder (of the family pet, and one of his wife’s employees…) and the defacement of art was reasonably part of the “contract” around a sexual dalliance that Evan tacitly accepted.

I suppose the message here is that once you break the rules to get what you desire, all the rules are off-the-table. 

Nothing is sacred. 

If Evan is willing to sacrifice his family for a meaningless dalliance, then his lovers are justified in treating the family with a similar disregard.

Long story short: I applaud Knock Knock for taking on modern sexual politics (in regards not just to families, but the impact of social media too…) with brazen open-ness and not a small amount of courage.

I just wish it picked a side and cogently argued it, much like the original Death Game did.

At the end of Knock Knock, you may be endlessly-conflicted about the movie’s point, and the responsibilities of the various players.

And that's a "knock," the film can't escape. It doesn't really know, or articulate successfully, what it wishes to be about.


  1. Sounds like an interesting film. Reminds me a bit of "Audition" which also had a lead character who we come to understand even if we don't agree with his actions. I still think he got treated way harsher than he deserved. And then there's "Hard Candy" which plays with the viewer in a similar way (and a bit gleefully too).

  2. It's an Eli Roth film, what do you expect? Something watchable even in the "so bad it's good" sense? That's like expecting Lucy to let Charlie Brown actually kick the football. He's no Coleman Francis that's for sure.