Everyone loves a good cleaning montage. It sets things right. It restores order. The party from the night before is washed away. That bloody murder you just committed? Scrubbed clean—mind, body, soul, and linoleum. All mistakes can be absolved in the placid regimen of the cleansing ritual. Movies revel in this form and function, unfolding complications and messes then rapidly tidying up. It’s immensely satisfying and heavily symbolic—a perfect filmic expression, in other words. The mind craves these housekeeping scenarios; the faster the better. When resolution is denied, we’re left clambering; escapism defies its very purpose in service of spitting us back out into an unforgiving and chaotic reality—then you get a Blow-Up to The Conversation to Blow Out situation, and the unknowability of the world rots your mind to sludge.
Typically, these glorious découpages take place in a home, naturally, where we demand the utmost sanctuary and clarity. And this is where the nefarious horror subgenre of the home invasion thriller comes in to play. The best home invasion films (Inside, Funny Games, Straw Dogs, You’re Next, et al.) draw out the primal from the domestic setting, leaving things irreparable on all ends. Violence comes calling but was always inherent anyway, expressed or not; paradigms just needed a shove. It this sense, even if expected, a knock at the door is always a jarring occurrence—it disturbs the fragile harmony of the domicile, prodding the anxiety that all that’s built up is inevitably meant to come crashing down. That’s why we keep churning ’em out; these wicked invasive thrillers resonate on a deeply unnerving wavelength, and increasingly so as we’re more often than not watching in cozy comfort.
The home is a sieve—exposed as an alarmingly porous, flimsy constellation, constructed from a host of shaky, vulnerable archetypes. The domestic and all that defines and fills it are besieged from the outside but also rotten at the core. Eli Roth’s Knock Knock takes this rich premise and doesn’t so much find a new angle in as decidedly semi-wicked ways to sully it. He does so with a tact he has heretofore not displayed, that’s all the better for bordering on fortuity. That is, he uses his gift for unsubtlety and turns it to a distinct advantage. In the film, a successful family man (Evan) is beset by two wayward, coquettish ingénues (Bell and Genesis) one rainy evening while the family’s away. Evan (Keanu Reeves) gives in accordingly and the rest just about writes itself—motivations and characters are not what they seem, naturally. Knock Knock’s premise draws on exploitation past and ties it to the superficial late-night exploitation-light of present (throwing in a lewd and tangential if unintentional connection to The Box—a deeply-flawed, cerebral, bloated take on the innate evil and lust of society as a sort of ongoing sociological experiment—which Roth extracts if only to neglect).
Roth has long been a purveyor, aficionado/connoisseur, a champion really, if not a steward (self-appointed, all, to a degree), of trash films, Z-grade flicks churned out on a nickel to make a dime. Knock Knock is, after all, a remake of Death Game, a classic-mold ’70s sexploitation flick. Roth actually classes it up a bit, strangely, only to let it devolve. There’s a secret artistry ingrained in this low-budget, under-the-radar schlock-fest tradition. Despite negligible pedigree and general disdain, this fare has claim to a widespread and diverse brood—it being arguably one of the chief driving forces of the modern independent age, ever since Pulp Fiction blew up the game and made exploitation boss. The allure of the underground cinema of the ’70s and early-’80s is the freedom to experiment; what they lack in sophisticated production they make up for with unrestrained ids, egos, and libidinous primality, unchecked by the superego of major studio meddling. In this wasteland, tastelessness ruled the day, depravity was a commodity, and boundaries were only established to be ruthlessly defiled.
In this day and age, shades have emerged amidst the fanboyish revelry for this misbegotten era. Explosions in availability have stoked the pastiche-perspective the youth of today inhale like oxygen. It makes perfect sense that exploitation-trash of all stripes would find a second life here. What’s fascinating is that Roth doesn’t approach shit art as a postmodern exercise, but rather as an end goal, an ideal to achieve and strive for. Knock Knock is not just about scratching at a sub-paradigm, it also wants to knock high art from its pedestal with multi-layered poor taste. So far, frustratingly little of Roth’s purported influences and referents have actually transferred into his films intact; the themes, distinct styles, and even period details are not pilfered unbroken, always betraying a relatively modern sensibility about it all, if with a similar spirit of mischievousness and indifference appropriately tainting his oeuvre. With Knock Knock, this shifts, with some unexpectedly lucid results.
The tricky part of this gambit is that having too much of a schematic is just that, and it actually can undermine the very visceral intentions of his films, which was really the idea behind the Giallo and Italo-horror, Fulci-gore, and pseudo-snuff (he talks about Cannibal Holocaust a lot, and he finally did something of a remake with The Green Inferno, released, after being shelved for a long while, just two weeks before Knock Knock), and grindhouse fare Roth lauds. So it makes sense that ideology and aesthetics unravel in his filmography. This penchant for disregard is alive and well in Knock Knock, perhaps more than anywhere else, because he sets the stage with a greater touch. The process Knock Knock most lingers on is the systematic, rippling, rapid deconstruction of a memorialized homestead. The real crux of this movie is the grey area between schlock and respectability and the fun of tearing apart museum works respectfully placed behind glass.
Film is and largely has been stubbornly resistant to being sealed and situated, and in some ways, the function of grindhouse fare is to liberate this art from the stodginess of its brethren. Film’s a mass medium, consumed by all and cannibalized in larger numbers later on. Even still, Roth’s intentions are apart from the cultivated insurrectionism of his forebears, rather choosing a baser approach—dragging viewers through the muck and mire of pseudo-exploitation films with none of the pesky depth: Complex politics, tactile subversion, socio-cultural pastiche—preferring instead a wholesale approach and a bargain barrel entertainment aesthetic. But there’s something noble in this lack of ambition. He has grindhouse aspirations with none of the iconoclasm so frequently lumped onto this misremembered genre. His is a purely squirm-inducing endeavor, not a heady exercise; any themes or stabs at profundity are largely incidental. Knock, Knock is again anomalous because it does take stabs, wild stabs that miss the mark, hacking only to take pot shots.
Roth displays a heretofore unexplored knack for exploiting setting in Knock Knock, to the point where, particularly in the têtes-à-tête deconstruction of Evan’s chivalry, one might describe it as crafty and disciplined—pejoratives in this terrain. Before, the grime and the murk of far off locales—from Cabin Fever through Hostel—were mostly developed to amplify the gore and gristle. Here, it’s reversed, everything is way too pristine, almost asking for it. And the scenarios are reversed: It’s not that characters have wandered into an irredeemable hellhole, this upscale pad in suburban L.A. is a hellhole in the making (or was it always a hellhole…?). Keanu’s civility is slowly then quickly eroded by the forward flirtations of the two dripping-wet women. This private world is torn down physically and metaphorically—the insulated exterior world turned to smut just as his interior (his formerly-productive narcissism) is made unclean.
This direct allegory sounds clear, and well-trodden, for sure, but it’s really incoherent in practice. It’s ill-defined, imbalanced, and leaden by nature, baiting criticism for nothing holding together. But, the aesthetic is smooth enough, and the genre affiliations intact enough, that we are lead to believe there is some profundity underlying the malice; there isn’t and that’s the point. It’s a crack at allegory that is meant to reveal it as a process of reading and of reflecting antithetical to the thrill of a good snuff effort. There is a lax-profundity to the distaff Straw Dogs-esque escapades that is wholly hollow. Roth even courts over-obvious satire with the opening sweep over the Hollywood hills and into the swanky suburban sprawl of L.A. Knock Knock could be legitimately described as aggressively middle-brow. The Cinemax(/“Skin-emax”)-style setup marks the film’s intentions in this vein—the premium cable network being known for its soft-core offerings, presentations that exist in a liminal nether-region between out-and-out pornographic and quasi-erotic, never achieving one or the other or any combination.
Scrape at the film’s outer layer, and some light misogyny exists under the surface, just enough to be slightly unsettling, and to invert the outward pseudo-feminist allegory the film purports to peddle. Our hero becomes victim, we are sympathetic most to him despite many of his indiscretions cascading onto his wife and family, conveniently shuffled off to become more ideas and totems than human collateral. Between the clean lines is a good deal of scribbling. Over-the-top unnaturalistic acting (with Keanu going “full Cage,” so to speak) swings to wooden and unaffected on a dime, with little to no in-between register. It’s fitting in the context: Coming just when Reeves was surging back into favor critically and commercially with the taut, stylish actioner John Wick and his throwback-wuxia directorial debut, Man of Tai-chi.
The setting is a home-cum-museum—a sterile environment with delicate and priceless things that are venerated and protected. Everything about the home is artful—the vintage stereo equipment, mixing turntables, eclectic record collection, art on the walls, the feng shui flow, and on and on. Keanu is an architect, creating detailed CAD and 3D models in the basement, and used to be a DJ; his wife is a renowned sculptor among other things, and has an upcoming MoMA exhibition. The backyard is a damned sculpture garden. The house itself is an art piece, meticulously, lovingly designed by Evan for the family. The modernist home, the colorful sculptures with lucid, clearly drawn inspirations and obscure-complex referents are calcified art forms, works with beginnings and middles and ends, placed behind glass and not to be touched or fully experienced. We enter and explore this wondrous and impressive space from this distanced perspective, then we settle in just in time to witness its uniqueness and merit and history torn down.
Because of this set up and the overflow of perceived cultural import, the demolition at first plays as excruciating and frustrating. Soon enough, it leans back toward cathartic. The degree to which it’s built up holds the potential for purgation—it formalizes the deep-set desire to kill a thing simply because it is perfect, and has the gall to posit this urge as universal. Hasn’t everyone had this impulse at a museum? Seeing all this haute art get trashed with penises and expletives has a diabolical thrill that becomes undeniable for being emphasized and overdrawn. High art is made vulgar and base, appealing to a gleefully undeveloped mindset—Roth’s baseline. It’s funny and uncouth in appropriate measure, and it feels like a recalibration in kind. The punch line is how little it takes to turn the museum-ready sculptures into trash. Just a bit of graffiti separates exhibition and heap (and vice versa sometimes). Fittingly, by film’s end, Evan is a gagged, screaming, humiliated installation-piece in the sculpture garden, an abject fixture amongst profaned rubbish.
I have to wonder: Is Roth implicitly tapping into the disturbing defacing of culture ripped from the headlines—a dangerous lineage of indiscriminate cultural effacement and cleansing? Is he making light by lowering the stakes to absurd levels by infiltrating the swanky suburbs? Or, even more provocatively, is he implying our complicity in the defacement, putting us in the position to delight in destroying priceless things, situating our enjoyment of it as the cherry on top of a rancid sundae? Regardless, Knock Knock is an exploitation mandala meditation—an elaborate, pristine set, caressed with intricate and considered camera movements and mapping, systematically destroyed to unsettle and amuse. It even has a pretty killer cleaning montage smack-dab in the middle, too, just to tease our senses before it all goes to hell again; so really, Roth gets to destroy the set twice (or is it two sets?). Our refined and sophisticated subconscious wavelengths tell us to laud and preserve and ponder soulfully and philosophically; Knock Knock courts this while also appealing to the lizard brain, forcing the mind in conflict with itself. To truly celebrate trash, first you must turn the mind to mush, and Knock Knock bashes our better inclinations with rampant dick jokes. In a world gone mad, incoherence is rational, and it’s entertaining.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.