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“Knock Knock” (2015) REVIEW

Eli Roth seems to be making his long overdue comeback in a major way this year, and he’s doing it by tackling ultra specific horror and thriller subgenres. Last month saw the release of The Green Inferno, Roth’s ode to the Italian “cannibal boom” which took horror audiences by the throat from the late-’70s thru the mid-’80s. Now, barely 3 weeks later, he’s back with Knock Knock, a remake of the 1977 horror flick Death Game, which starred Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp (both of whom produced Knock Knock; Camp also has a cameo).

Now, Knock Knock may be Roth’s take on a little-seen exploitation flick, but to me it feels more like the “Yuppies in Danger” subgenre that flooded the early-’90s. Films like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, Pacific Heights, The CrushUnlawful Entry, Fear, and many more. And how exactly do you put a yuppie in danger? Well, the formula is pretty simple. It goes something like this:

  • Introduce lead character: a yuppie. Make sure their life is pretty perfect (isn’t it always?)
  • Introduce outsider who infiltrates yuppie’s life. Outsider should seem harmless enough at first.
  • Outsider shows true colors and turns yuppie’s life upside down in a dangerous way.
  • Outsider will make yuppie look like the dangerous/guilty one before attempting to murder them.
  • Outsider is done away with, yuppie’s life is saved; lots of sweaty hugging of characters, with eyes closed. The end.

That’s it, that’s the formula. A more specific sticking point of the Yuppie in Danger film is infidelity. There has to at least be sexual tension — if not an overt act of adultery — to really shake things up. And so with all that in mind, onto Knock Knock.

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Evan (Keanu Reeves) is an architect, happily married and a father of two, who has to spend Father’s Day alone at home working on a project while the wife and kids head out of town on vacation. That night (ominously rainy, of course) he gets a knock (knock) at the door. There stand two young, drenched coed types — Genesis and Bel (Roth’s real life wife Lorena Izzo, and Ana de Armas, respectively.) They’re lost and unable to find the party they were supposed to attend, and now the rain has left them without phones. Evan takes them in, gets them some fresh towels, and even allows them to dry their clothes. That’s when the girls start to snuggle up to Evan. And then…Yuppie in Danger!

Eli Roth has found the perfect “handsome nice guy” in Reeves. From the opening scenes with his wife and kids, to the scenes where the girls start being a little too flirty, Reeves just exudes this genuine niceness — a good, decent guy who you immediately invest in — and it really helps sell the character (and what eventually happens.) The girls are perfectly cast as well. They play crazy in a very realistic, innocent and playful way that really ratchets up the suspense. They’re so gleeful in their insanity, you really don’t know what they’re capable of or what’s going to happen next — and that’s great for building tension.

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One of the things I loved most about Knock Knock was the way the girls gain entry to Evan’s home (and essentially, his life): a single, minor, fleeting line spoken by Izzo’s Genesis. When they show up at his doorstep in need of a phone, they immediately run into a snag — neither girl knows their friend’s phone numbers, because who remembers phone numbers anymore? So Genesis asks: “Can we use your computer?” It’s such a wonderfully on point update to a familiar horror trope, one that feels very natural and doesn’t feel like it was shoehorned in.

Of course, the movie isn’t without a few speedbumps (what movie is?) While he’s great at playing the kind, affable good-looking dad type here, Reeves stalls occasionally in the “holy shit, my life is in danger” department. There were a few scenes where his wooden delivery kinda killed the tension. But I’m a sucker for Reeves, baby. He’ll always get a pass from me. I mean, have you seen River’s Edge?

I’d say the biggest flaw with the movie is its sort-of “story with a moral” approach. Going that route leaves a lot of big holes in the 90 minutes leading up to the climax. The aforementioned Yuppies in Danger movies I named all took the simple road: the infiltrator is crazy. No rhyme or reason, no backstory. Perhaps a little bit of motive, but no ultimate plan in the long run. And that’s where Knock Knock stumbles: it tries to give too much meaning to the events instead of letting them retain a little mystery.

One part Poison Ivy and one part Fatal Attraction, Knock Knock plays like a female version of Funny Games — and like all of Roth’s stuff, it’s a fun and entertaining watch. Next up for Roth is his take on the “natural horror” subgenre with the killer sea creature movie, Lake Mead. I’m excited to see where he goes from there. Might I suggest the “killer kid” genre, Eli?

Final things to note:

  • In the film, Keanu says he is 43. In real life, he’s 51. I find it funny that he looks so damn good for his age, that he had to go lower to make it more believable for his character.
  • I wonder if Roth was inspired to write this when he wrote the two sleazy female leads in Hostel. This almost feels like it could’ve been a spin-off for those characters.
  • “It was pizza! It was free-fucking-pizza!” is not only one of the greatest lines ever growled on film, but one that caused a weird emotional stirring inside me. What can I say: when Reeves is on, he’s on.

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“The Green Inferno” (2015) REVIEW

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In 2012, After 5 long years away from the director’s chair, ‘Splat Pack’ founding father Eli Roth announced he was stepping behind the camera once again to make The Green Inferno, his love letter to the ‘cannibal boom’ — a genre that took over Italian horror and exploitation cinema from the late-’70s to mid-’80s. This sub-genre of horror was known for it’s unrelenting brutality, unflinching violence, and in many instances the actual (and wholly unnecessary) slaughter of animals on film. It was a particularly savage and barbaric brand of horror that even the most dyed-in-the-fur horrorhound had trouble thoroughly enjoying. So who better than Roth, the godfather of “torture porn”, to take the helms and deliver a shocking and offensive kick in the butt that we, the horror moviegoing public, so desperately needed to get us out of the generic paranormal rut we’d found ourselves stuck in since he left the scene?

Alas, the finished film found itself in limbo after its distributor ran into money troubles, and there it waited indefinitely — a release date uncertain…if at all. In the meantime we sat, fidgeting, speculating the grand return of Roth and everything his mythical film had to offer. Enter Jason Blum, the indie horror producer wunderkind who, coincidentally enough, spearheaded the tidal wave of paranormal movies that began in 2007, the same year of Roth’s last release. Blum saved the day, using his Blumhouse Tilt production company to finally secure distribution for The Green Inferno. The cannibalistic gods smiled upon us!

The Green Inferno sees a group of American protestors heading deep into the jungles of the Amazon, trying to protect the tropical land from deforestation. They seem to succeed in halting the developers and celebrate their victory with beers on the plane ride home. Unfortunately, the plane crashes and the survivors soon run afoul of some sadistic savages hiding in the lush foliage. From there, the group of westerners must fight to survive, lest they wanna become the main course.

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Now, viewers new to cannibal films will probably watch this movie with hands placed firmly over their eyes, occasionally peeking through the slits in their fingers. But those more familiar with the genre (dare I use the term, “fans”) will notice a few of the more shocking elements associated with the boom missing from this film, notably the real animal slaughter and the requisite rape/sexual assault scenes. Gone, too, are the inventive, stomach-turning death scenes: what horror fan isn’t familiar with the horrifying and iconic imagery of the impaled people from Cannibal Holocaust, or the hooks through the breasts and the castration scene from Cannibal Ferox? There are nods to the impaled bodies in The Green Inferno, as well as references to several other cannibal films sprinkled throughout (in fact, Cool Ass Cinema has a great list of all the movies The Green Inferno references; I highly suggest checking it out), but other than paying homage to the films that inspired it, The Green Inferno really doesn’t offer much in terms of creative and awful ways to die.

In fact, I’d argue there’s not enough violence. The words “Eli Roth directing a cannibal movie” conjures up all sorts of ideas of relentless brutality. But aside from one specific scene (which seems to be the movie’s centerpiece, and to be fair, is exceptionally brutal) most of the violence is fairy tame by today’s standards, or is obscured by fast cuts. Eli Roth said during a recent AMA that the film released to theaters is the original film he created. Apparently, the notoriously scissor-happy MPAA didn’t request any scenes to be cut. I’m amazed at both of those statements, but I’ll take it as gospel. I’ll just say: I wish it had been more violent.

One element that kinda let me down was the handling of the American group who gets attacked by the cannibals. Leading up to its release, all I read was article after article boasting how Roth was taking on “the armchair activists and the social justice warriors.” The Green Inferno was going to take these loudmouth PC college types and stick them in a place they didn’t belong and show them the consequences of being involved in a cause they ultimately truly know nothing about. Since the ultra-PC thing is really hot right now, I was amped to see Roth take this fad on. But aside from only a few painfully predictable bits of dialogue (from both the activists and the anti-activists), there really wasn’t anything that I would consider a jab at the PC crowd. And actually, I even felt bad for the group that got attacked — well, maybe one or two of ’em deserved it! But for the most part, they seemed likable enough.

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If I have one gripe, it’s with the two lead cannibals, the ones who’ve been featured prominently throughout the promotional material (y’know, nosering cataract lady and yellow-faced bald dude.) They’re so cartoonish, they look like they should be sitting in the waiting room at the end of Beetlejuice. I kept expecting the bald guy to growl “Kali-maaaaaa!” I get that they’re the lead cannibals and supposed to be scary and ‘savage’, but it coulda been toned down just a bit. The tribe of red-painted cannibals are more subtle and realistic (because they actually are a real tribe) and therefore inherently more scary.

Despite my minor criticisms, I gotta say: it’s an enjoyable flick. I was glad to see it up on the big screen, and it’s a nice respite from the glut of ghost movies we’ve been inundated with the last few years. Roth’s strange sense of humor (think the “Pancakes!” kid from Cabin Fever) occasionally slows the momentum, but hey, that’s kinda his thing — so be prepared for it. In the end, this isn’t a movie you’ll watch and then take to the police, thinking actual crimes were committed, but this is a great starting place for someone interested in the cannibal genre — and if a movie can encourage viewers to seek out the films that inspired it, that’s a win all-around.

“Clown” (2014) REVIEW

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I don’t find clowns scary and I never have. I never understood people who were afraid of clowns. It always seemed like one of those universal fears — like a fear of the dark — that everyone seemed to share. Fear of the dark, I can understand that. But a fear of clowns? I always thought the fear of clowns was a silly and cliche thing. How is a guy in a rainbow wig and make-up scary? Sure, maybe Wizzo was pretty scary. And John Wayne Gacy. But in general, the idea of clowns never affected me. That being said, if you happen to be one of those people who are afraid of clowns, this movie will probably destroy your life.

Clown (2014) gets down to business pretty quick: it opens on a child’s birthday party; Meg (Laura Allen), mom of the birthday boy, gets a call that the clown she ordered has to cancel last minute. Meanwhile, the dad, Kent (Andy Powers), is a real estate agent who’s onsite cleaning up a house he plans to sell. He calls to let his wife know he’s coming home soon, she mentions the clown canceling, and Kent — playing the role of Superdad — says not to worry, that he’ll handle it. Luckily, he happens to spot an enchanting chest in a mysterious back room which just so happens to contain a bizarre jumpsuit and — believe it or not — a wig and a red nose. He slaps it on, makes it home to wow all the kids at the party, and as the evening comes to a close, falls asleep with the whole get-up still on.

In the morning, he awakes to find that he’s still dressed up and having trouble taking off the wig, nose, and outfit. Late to work (and in taking his kid to school), Kent leaves everything on and runs out the door. Once he drops his son, Jack (Christian Distefano), off at school and makes in to work, he then resumes attempting to remove everything. Unfortunately for Kent, it’s stuck, and it looks like a career change is on the horizon: entertaining at kids’ birthday parties in Hell.

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The first few minutes of the film require a lot of suspension of disbelief. The fact that he happens to find this costume right after his wife tells him they’re in need of a clown is almost laughably lucky. Add to that the fact that Kent, for whatever reason, wears the wig and clown nose for the first part of the next day — and doesn’t seem to even be remotely panicked or concerned with his appearance — also demands the watcher to look the other way. But once the ball finally gets rolling, it doesn’t slow down.

I was actually really impressed at how the film handles its pacing. Seeing as the shit hits the fan almost immediately — within the first 20 minutes of the 100 minute film — I was wondering how they were going to maintain the tension for the remainder of the movie, but they manage to pull it off. The film keeps gaining speed, upping the stakes as we watch the desperate and confused Kent transform from a loving father into a murderous, child-eating monster. Did I mention the Clown likes to eat kids? He does.

Also impressive is that this is the big screen debut from writer/director Jon Watts. He also wrote and directed 2015’s Cop Car, which is a complete 180 from Clown, both visually and in subject matter and tone.

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To me, the scariest part of Kent as the killer clown isn’t his final transformation (although it is awesome): I think the scariest part is when he’s in transition. Wearing a knit cap, a trenchcoat, and garbage bags duct taped over his feet — while still sporting the white face and red nose — he looks terrifyingly creepy. Add to that the fact that he’s often shot in shadows or under the cover of night makes him far, far scarier than any clown I’ve ever seen.

Clown is one part IT and one part The Fly, and that makes for a killer combination. Whether you find clowns scary or not, you should get a thrill out of this movie. Doc sez: two severed thumbs up!

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