Have you checked the children?
This is the question posed to mousy babysitter Carol Kane via creepy unsolicited phone call in 1979’s When a Stranger Calls. Kane has the police trace the line and gets the shock of a lifetime when an officer tells her: the calls are coming from inside the house – get out of there, now!
There’s something very unsettling about the thought of leaving a vulnerable child in the care of some unfamiliar person. It’s a real fear, especially if you’re a parent. What’s scarier than a child – your own child – being in danger, and being unable to help them? And despite being an idea ripe for exploration, “nannysploitation” surprisingly hasn’t been too done to death – especially when dealing with the safety of the children. Aside from When a Stranger Calls, the babysitter movies of the ’80s and ’90s were primarily a positive affair, finding the caregiver and kids either singing at a blues club, or at their darkest, covering up the death of the nanny while still finding time to party. Still, the bleaker entries involving an evil au pair never dealt with the sitter harming the kids; it was always the sitter trying to destroy the family (see: The Babysitter, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle).
Enter Emelie, a movie that finally explores what it would be like to leave your tots alone with a dangerous person who isn’t who they say they are.
Emelie sees a couple hiring a babysitter so that they can finally have a free night out on the town to enjoy their anniversary. Little do they know the girl they bring into their home is an unhinged psychopath with an agenda all her own. The night’s activities don’t include puzzles and games, but rather cruelty and psychological torture.
Prior to watching the movie, I saw the promotional image floating around online of a child holding a gun to a woman’s head – and I was immediately on board. It’s an awesome and subversive image that seems to let on that this movie was going to be dangerous and unpredictable. And while there are a few uncomfortable scenes early on, the movie is largely muddled and largely uninteresting. Furthermore, due to the inclusion of a wholly unnecessary backstory, we discover our protagonist’s motivations and suddenly all those previous uncomfortable scenes are rendered powerless – because now they just don’t make sense – and will most likely leave viewers asking, “why’d she do those things?”
The kids are pretty solid actors, but even still everyone seems so bored and subdued considering the subject matter, turning in bare minimum performances. Sarah Bolger, who plays our nasty nanny, is painfully placid to the point where she almost seems disinterested. This, too, stands in stark contrast to her motivations. It also stands in contrast to the situations the characters find themselves in. I can’t speak for today’s kids, but back when I was only so old that I required a babysitter, had said sitter done anything like Emelie does in the film, I would have been screaming my head off and running for the front door immediately.
In the end, Emelie suffers from jamming idiot logic (a slasher mainstay) into a film that feels like it wants to be an interesting psychological thriller, and I don’t think you can have both – at least not in today’s movies – without the end result feeling cheap or dumb, or having the viewer feel cheated. Emelie never goes full throttle in either direction; it just sort of hovers in a safe space where our lead drags her wards from one malevolent scene to the next without repercussion or reaction. The movie would have been much stronger had the filmmakers either cut the backstory and made Emelie a mysterious and truly dangerous presence, or included her backstory but made her much less evil, maybe even sympathetic.
All I know is: if I ever have kids, I’m skippin’ the sitter.