In the 13 years since he released his breakout horror picture, Cabin Fever, director Eli Roth's name has become synonymous with torture, bloodletting, and mass murder.
He gained international notoriety with 2005's Hostel. That movie captured with clinical precision the most horrific ways the human body can be beaten, torn, cut, stabbed, pulped, and sliced. It made the term torture porn a byphrase.
Yet nothing in Roth's oeuvre is more disturbing than his latest picture, Knock Knock, a home-invasion thriller that scrupulously avoids even a single act of physical violence. A minor character does die, but it's the result of a childish prank.
And that is the essence of Roth's film. A pair of young, nubile women (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) who play a series of increasingly sick practical jokes on a well-to-do middle-aged architect (Keanu Reeves).
Tracing its lineage to the films of Luis Buñuel and Michael Haneke that enact surreal, savage critiques of bourgeois morality and mass culture, Knock Knock opens on an aerial shot of the Hollywood sign before taking us into an affluent housing development and to the home of Evan Webber (Reeves) and his family, a loving unit so happy, so idyllic, one wonders whether they mainline saccharine at night.
One weekend, Evan's wife (Ignacia Allamand) and two kids go to their vacation home, while Evan stays back to work. He is disturbed by two sweet-looking women who say they've been stranded by their cabdriver. Soaked-through in a torrential downpour, they ask him for help. Ever the nice guy, Evan obliges.
The women eventually seduce him, then refuse to leave the house in the morning. Claiming they are underage, they threaten to call the police unless Evan plays along. Alternately savage, manic, depressed, suicidal, and homicidal, the girls trash the house, force Evan to baby them as if they were his kids, then seduce him again and finally force him to submit to a mock trial for statutory rape.
Knock Knock has more than a passing resemblance to Haneke's Funny Games - about two young male intruders who hold an entire family hostage. It mounts an intelligent, if not altogether successful, attack on consumer culture, the mass media, and middle-class moral values.
The film uses Evan's attackers, who are obsessed by childhood sexual abuse, to attack the constant barrage of media images that sexualize girls at a young age. The girls are schizoid creatures, taught to present themselves as objects of desire, yet at the same time worthy of parental love and protection.
While its message is a little simplistic, Knock Knock is shot through with a brilliant, gleefully anarchic dark humor that's equally fun and disturbing. Roth's best film to date, Knock Knock proves even the most notorious purveyor of torture porn can evolve as a thinker and artist.
Knock Knock **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Eli Roth. With Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allamand. Distributed by Lionsgate Premiere.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, strong sexual content, profanity).
Playing at: PFS at the Roxy.EndText