Eli Roth entertainingly updates a '70s exploitation film with better acting and new technology.
Keanu Reeves’ whiny monologue comparing an act of infidelity to “free pizza” is a moment that seems destined for cult canonization in “Knock Knock,” Eli Roth’s glossy and reasonably fun update of Peter Traynor’s 1977 exploitation movie “Death Game.” The original film isn’t credited as the source of the screenplay, but this is, by any reasonable definition, a remake, faithfully preserving most of the first movie’s plot beats while adding better acting, Uber and FaceTime. (One of the stars of “Death Game,” Colleen Camp, has a small role and serves as producer; her co-star Sondra Locke and Traynor get exec producer credits.) Modest commercial results seem possible; “Knock Knock” will probably go down as the better of the two home-invasion films, not least because Reeves makes a better punching bag than Seymour Cassel.
A look back to the Manson murders and a look forward to “Funny Games,” “Death Game” finds Cassel’s home-alone family man besieged by two hippie chicks (Locke and Camp) who claim to have gotten lost on their way to a party. At first, they merely seem like they’re in no hurry to leave, but after he sleeps with them, they reveal a more sinister agenda.
Roth drops that film’s irritating theme song, stretches out the suspense of the setup, creates some smart plot possibilities using new technology, improves the ending, and in general adds elegance to what was a cheap-looking production. (The available DVD, at least, is piss-poor.) It’s also nice to see the “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever” director ditching grossout tactics and working in a mode where the primary horror is psychological. Although no film in which two women play “monkey in the middle” with a man’s inhaler can quite be called mature, “Knock Knock” marks a step in that direction.
Reeves is Evan, an architect who, as he’s introduced, is about to have sex with his artist wife, Karen (Ignacia Allamand), when his children burst in to wish him a happy Father’s Day. Awww. Karen and the kids soon depart for the beach. Enter Bel (Ana de Armas) and Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, aka Mrs. Roth), dripping wet from a dark and stormy night. Roth and his co-screenwriters tease out the flirtation more patiently than Traynor did. The women flatter Evan, pretending he’s younger than he is and taking advantage of his nostalgia for his past as a DJ. He puts up a bit more resistance to his visitors’ sexual overtures than Cassel’s character did, and there are amusingly preposterous explanations for why they can’t leave just yet.
But he gives in, letting the Uber cab he’s ordered drive off while the three of them have sex. (Roth somehow makes this absurd menage a trois even more decadent by shooting some of it through fogged shower glass.) Starting the next morning, the women reveal their inner ids, making a mess of Evan’s kitchen and defacing Karen’s artwork. This is the punishment for homewreckers, it seems. The economical, satisfyingly nasty scenario would be nothing without Izzo and De Armas, who — in addition to having the staggering good looks the plot requires — play off each other with ace comic timing and palpable menace. At one point, they tie Evan up and make him the contestant on a pretend gameshow, torturing him with loud music. Reeves, enduring constant abuse (and jokes at the expense of his hair), is a great sport.
Confined mostly to one well-appointed house, the film makes bold use of interior design, as Roth glides his camera through the space and exploits the expressionist possibilities of Venetian blinds and beading storm water on windows. When the characters go outside — Santiago, Chile, subs for California — credulity is strained.
Tech contributions do a lot with a little.