I’m still waiting for Eli Roth to make a good movie. But for the first thirty or forty minutes of Knock Knock, I thought maybe this was the one. It starts off well, with a camera gliding over the Hollywood hills and locating the well-appointed, sheltered home of forty-something architect Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) and his artist wife Karen (Ignacia Allamand). Then Roth’s camera glides through the corridors of the house, making sure to linger on the family photos adorning the walls. It’s an image the film returns to over and over again in its first half, and one can’t help but dread what might be lurking at the end of those spaces. If only the movie were all anticipation.
Set over the course of a day, the story begins with Evan and Karen and their two young children in seeming familial bliss. It’s Father’s Day, and they’re about to leave for a brief holiday, but Evan has to work, so he stays behind in the empty house while wifey and kids go ahead of him. A driving rainstorm starts, and soon enough, two beautiful, drenched party girls in hot pants and heels — Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) — show up at the front door, claiming to have gotten lost on their way to a party. Their phones are soaked, too. Evan reluctantly invites them in from the rain, then he gets them an Uber. The girls are grateful, bubbly, and seemingly into him.
For a while, Knock Knock is content to watch the playfully tense give-and-take between Evan and the girls as they try to sidle up to him. Curious inquiries turn into flattery, flattery turns into light physical contact, light physical contact turns into rubbing up and erstwhile embraces. Throughout, Evan tries to politely navigate the situation, bobbing from chair to chair, trying to avoid these girls’ clear advances. But he doesn’t exactly kick them out, either. Here’s a narcissistic guy approaching middle age, with a family, his days as a hard-partying DJ long behind him; surely he can’t resist all this willing female flesh, can he? Roth, who actually has a talent for comedy, expertly choreographs this game of sexually loaded musical chairs, all the while keeping us guessing as to Evan’s true desires — even as the man seems to be playing everything by the rules.
Anyway, that’s the good part of the movie. Then, Evan finally gives in and schtups the two flirty sirens, and things go downhill from there, as the film degenerates into a kind of torture-revenge comedy designed to punish Evan for his philandering ways. That’s not exactly unexpected, of course. This is a remake of the sleazeball 1977 thriller Death Game, in which Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp (the latter has a cameo here) played nutso lesbians who preyed upon smug businessman Seymour Cassell. Roth has updated the story with lots of references to au courant technology — besides Uber, texting, Instagram, and Facebook all make appearances — and he’s given it his own tongue-in-cheek spin.
But the film collapses, because it doesn’t convince us on a basic level: The characters are driven by convenience, not behavior, and their actions seem like they’ve been manhandled into place to make the plot work. Roth also never captures the dangerous tone required to make us feel in any way invested in what’s happening onscreen. Even at their worst, those grindhouse movies he loves and references had an unhinged quality that made it seem like anything was possible, like in watching them we’d entered a world without any rules. Knock Knock, by contrast, is debilitatingly inert. The torture gets worse and worse, and we care less and less.