Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Emelie (2015)

I love the fact that the 1990s “interloper”-style horror film is making something of a cinematic comeback of late, at least between The Gift (2015) and now Emelie (2015).

This is how I recently (and in Horror Films of the 1990s too); defined the interloper as a boogeyman:

“The interloper as an “invader” a person who “deliberately interferes with the affairs of another, or who trespasses into a place, situation, or activity without permission or invite.”

The setting of said invasion might be the workplace (The Temp [1993], The Fan [1996]), the home (The Guardian [1990], Pacific Heights [1990], The Hand That Rocks the Cradle [1992], Single White Female [1992]) or even a family vacation (The River Wild [1994]).

In regards to The Gift and the interloper sub-genre I also attempted to define the conventions of this notable of the form in the following way.

Convention #1, as I noted, “we’re all accountable,” meaning that in an Interloper movie, the film’s protagonist commits some act that sparks the interest or activity of the invader in the first place. For instance, a hero might break the law (like Nick Nolte's character does in Cape Fear [1991]), invade a roommate’s personal space (as Bridget Fonda does to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female), or “fudge the numbers” to achieve a certain end (as Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine do in Pacific Heights). So it’s fair to state that the Interloper film is all about characters realizing that bouts of immorality carry a considerable cost.

Convention #2 of the Interloper film I termed “What’s Your Childhood Trauma,” and it involves the fact that Interlopers are often psychologically damaged, having undergone severe psychological or mental trauma, often during their childhood. Hedy in Single White Female once had a twin who drowned, for instance. Judith (Jamie Lee Curtis), the psychotic mother of Mother’s Boys (1994), saw her father commit suicide. The Interlopers in these films are generally sick people, at least in terms of emotion and personal experience. Something about their trauma triggers their behavior in the movie’s present (and unfolding narrative).

Convention #3 is “Big Problems Start Small” and it reflects the idea that an Interloper’s attacks begin with little, thought disturbing things. A pet disappears or is killed (Cape Fear, Man’s Best Friend, The River Wild), a car gets scratched (The Crush [1993), Fear [1996] for example.

The fourth and final convention of the Interloper Horror Film I titled “Your Life is Up For Grabs.” What it means is that the Interloper gets inside the protagonist’s life, and causes the hero to lose a job, lose his or her family, or make other terrible sacrifices. In other words, the Interloper’s invasion affects someone on a deep, personal level.

What was once stable is now unstable. What was once unquestioned is now in total jeopardy.

The Interloper films and their structure became much less popular after the 1990s, though the form has been resurrected in films such as Orphan (2009).

Emelie is the latest example of this resurrection, and like The Gift, is a well-made and effective film. Emelie involves an angel-faced young babysitter, Anna/Emelie (Sarah Bolger) who is not who she claims to be, and who nearly destroys a typical suburban family in one night.  Her invasion is of the home, and her target is the nuclear family she encounters: the Thompsons.

In this case, Emelie hits at least two key notes from the interloper formula pretty hard. Namely, Convention #2 (about personal trauma) and Convention #4 (your life is up for grabs).  The other conventions are present, but to a less prominent degree.

Going beyond the structure of interloper films, Emelie is really about the corruption of innocence, and it plays as something akin to a parent’s ultimate nightmare.

The invasion in the film is all about how a child’s innocence -- a precious commodity to any parent -- can be ruthlessly, and seemingly effortlessly, ripped away. Emelie Liroux’s actions aren’t just dangerous, they are committed with absolutely no regard for the psyches of the children in her care.

Harrowing, effective, and occasionally even taboo-shattering, Emelie is likely the best babysitter horror movie to come down the pike in quite some time. Its adroit handling of the interloper formula suggests that there is still a lot of life left there if the material is handled with intelligence and cunning.

“Pretending is this super power that we all have.”

Suburban parents Dan and Joyce Thompson (Chris Beetam and Susan Pourfar) want to go out for their anniversary, but when their regular babysitter cancels, they may have to cancel their evening away from their three children, Jacob (Joshua Rush), Sally (Carly Adams) and young Christopher (Thomas Bair).

Fortunately, they find another babysitter, whom they have never met, Anna, who agrees to work on short-notice.  

What the Thompsons don’t know is that Anna has been killed by a wanted fugitive named Emelie Liroux. And Liroux is masquerading as a babysitter for a very important, personal purpose. And Christopher is part of that purpose.

After their parents leave for the evening, Jacob, Sally and Christopher are left to the not very tender mercies of Emelie…

“Sometimes it is okay to destroy things for fun.”

In terms of the Interloper Formula, tConvention #1, Emelie doesn’t go too hard on the parents, at least so far as assigning guilt. 

The Thompsons want a night out and don’t do their due diligence. Still, Dad hasn’t had an affair with Emelie, or anything like that. These parents do, literally, invite the interloper into their home, but their worst crime is not checking on the credentials or identity of their sitter.  Their “fault” is in assuming that all things are normal. Their regular sitter has vouched for Anna…but Emelie isn’t Anna.

So, what we can establish here is that the Thompsons are exhausted from raising three kids, and are so desperate for the escape valve of a night out that they cut corners. They do so on the assumption that they live in a "safe world."

Convention #2 is where Emelie proves very intriguing. Emelie's middle name is “Medea,” apparently, and that may give you a clue as to her nature, and trauma. 

Emelie has had a break with sanity after an event we witness in (heart-breaking) flashback, and yes it relates to the crime of Medea, a figure from Greek myth.  

I have read some critical complaints regarding the fact that we see this trauma played out, in flashback form. I understand that criticism, but viewers needed to see this happen, and it fits the convention/structure of the Interloper film. 

We need to be aware of the thing that spurs Emelie’s psychotic break, just as we became aware of character histories in Single White Female, The Temp, and Mother’s Boys.  That background is baked into the equation: the violence and insanity are motivated not by abstract things, but by personal history.  

In this case, the trauma occurs not in Emelie’s childhood, but rather in her adulthood; her immediate past. And what happens is visceral and terrible. It's nobody's fault, either.  It goes back, actually to the blame I assigned to the parents. Their responsibility (or guilt) stems from exhaustion. Emelie's guilt arises from her exhaustion too.

Emelie also hits Convention 3. In a horrifying scene, the babysitter feeds Sally’s pet hamster to Jacob’s pet snake.

However, this murder of a family pet is not the first indicator of her unnatural or monstrous nature. When we first meet Emelie, for example, we see her blood-caked sneakers (ostensibly from the murder of Anna). And her first act with the Thompsons is to steal Jacob’s hand-held video game from his mother’s purse.  So the terror or incursion still starts small, but the murder of a family pet is not the earliest sign of the interloper’s sickness.  Still, it's nice that the movie incorporates this old standard of the format.

I suppose Convention #4 is handled best by Emelie. While the parents are gone, Emelie does horrible things to the children; things that it won’t be easy to come back from.  

She encourages their destruction of personal (and family property), noting that it is okay to destroy things just for fun.  

Then, she demands that Jacob talk to her during a game of hide-and-seek while she sits on the toilet and informs him that she is menstruating. 

The fact that she is on her period doesn't make her by nature an alien or a monster -- just  biologically a woman -- but the casual way Emily forces Jacob to contend with something unknown or grown-up suggests that she doesn't have his best interests at heart.

Next Emelie sits the children down for “movie night” and pops in a VHS tape of their parents having sexual intercourse.  

Yes, she has found their sex tape, and is showing it to their three pre-pubescent children.  

Again, even if the children survive their night with Emelie, this violation will not disappear and cannot be undone. The tape cannot be unseen. The children have been exposed to something (involving their parents, too…) that will need explaining, and will inform their understanding of sex for the rest of their lives.

Before the night is done, Christopher has a loaded gun in his hand, Jacob witnesses the death of his babysitter, Maggie, and Sally has been drugged…after seeing her pet hamster eaten alive by a python.

In one night, they have been forced to grow up far too fast. And in some way, this is a re-enactment of what happened to Emelie.  Her trauma also made her grow up far too young.

But basically, Emelie takes special care to disturb and unsettle the children, to unbalance them and show them things they are not yet ready to experience.  The invasion of the Thompsons’ family is therefore physical and psychological. 

It is physical in the sense that she nearly escapes with Christopher, taking the boy from his rightful family. And it is psychological in all the senses listed above.  

She has waged all-out assault on the innocence of the kids.

At one point in the film, things get especially nasty. It is learned that Emelie has an accomplice, someone whose mission it is to murder the kids’ parents. In short then, she is really playing for keeps. 

She not only wants to take Christopher away, she wants to destroy the parents, leaving Jacob and Sally orphans.  That is the ultimate way, perhaps, to make them grow up too young.

In the final analysis, perhaps, the film’s message is that Jacob is already more adult than the others, and therefore that he no longer needs to be coddled, or be treated as innocent.  After the initial stages of shock and fear, he comes back and fights for his family; for his siblings. He reveals that he is grown up enough to take care of himself, and that he can “take responsibility” as his parents have often instructed.  He also must make a tough choice at one point, deciding which sibling to save, and which to leave vulnerable.

Emelie works more often than not, and triumphs over its weak-ish ending, I would assess, because of the solid lead performances from Bolger, who plays Emelie, and Rush, who portrays Jacob. Their personality clash makes up most of the movie. 

Also on the negative side, the film seems to exist in a kind of technology Twilight Zone. Nobody here owns a modern iPhone-type device, and Josh’s video game looks distinctively last generation in nature.  So either the film was meant to be set a few years back, or was held out of release for a few years.  It’s a small point, but one that occasionally makes one ask questions.

If you enjoy interloper-style horror films, Emelie is a real treat. The film is quite tense, and well-shot, and though it adheres to the interloper structure, it is never a slave to it. 

The distinctive nature of Emelie’s trauma, and Bolger’s angel-faced demeanor make her a worthy heir to the interlopers of nineties films like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The Guardian, and Single White Female.

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