“Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Deadly” could work as both an alternate title and shorthand synopsis for “Emelie,” a familiarly premised but stringently executed home-invasion chiller that rarely goes for the straight-up scare when a more insidious one will do. Likeliest to prey on the sensibilities of younger parents — and to unnerve anyone who still thinks of gifted Irish actress Sarah Bolger as that preciously innocent pre-teen from “In America” — music-vid helmer Michael Thelin’s lean, lo-fi debut feature calmly pushes against the nastier bounds of its genre territory as it places two young children in the care of Bolger’s profoundly unhinged imposter. This ambiguous protagonist’s backstory emerges a little more predictably than it should, but even with that knowledge in place, Thelin succeeds in keeping any presumption of eventual sanctuary impressively at bay.
From the quiet, the flash-free sangfroid with which he stages a few key narrative jolts to the comparative relish he takes in smaller details of pain and perversion, Thelin’s approach is dictated less by the retro, Carpenter-built stylings currently prevalent in independent U.S. horror than by certain contemporary schools of Euro arthouse provocation. (In that sense, the palette of influences here doesn’t lie too far from that of American production outfit Borderline Films: Whether by accident or design, Luca Del Puppo’s grainy, autumnal widescreen lensing effectively recalls the soft-hued, shadow-stewed work of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” d.p. Jody Lee Lipes.) There are slightly less deadpan shades of Greek New Wave repulsion here, though the Austrian austerity of Michael Haneke is more clearly intended as a reference point, with certain plot machinations unapologetically indebted to “Funny Games.”
It’s hardest not to think of Haneke during the pic’s cold opening, shot from such a distance as to evoke surveillance footage: From the outset, then, the intimacy and security of the viewer’s perspective appears threatened. In impassive long shot, an amiable suburban teenager (Randi Langdon) walking home from school is distracted and bundled into the back of a car by a barely-glimpsed young couple — an abduction that most disquietingly takes place in broad, witness-free daylight. The victim’s plight isn’t tracked or elaborated upon as auds might expect; we’re given little reason not to fear the worst, though Thelin’s depiction of sidewalk-level evil persistently eschews hysteria for a nonchalance that is hardly less alarming.
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Cut to later that evening, as pleasantly bland marrieds Dan (Chris Beetem) and Joyce (Susan Pourfar) are dressing up for their anniversary dinner as their three rambunctious kids dart noisily around them, waiting for a new babysitter to arrive: Thelin takes his time establishing this hectically ordinary domestic setup, if only to usher in the real chaos when things turn less rowdy. The wholesome-faced, unimposing girl (Bolger) who turns up on their doorstep, introducing herself as Anna, is polite enough, though viewers may pick something curiously incurious about her agreeable demeanor.
Those who don’t sense something amiss — a group that includes Mom and Dad — needn’t wait long to be proven wrong, as Anna switches off the admittedly glazed charm the second they depart: “Stop smiling,” she snaps at middle child Sally (Carly Adams), and she doesn’t half mean it. “Sometimes it’s okay to destroy things for fun,” she pointedly counsels Sally’s older brother Jake (Joshua Rush), meanwhile; Thelin’s direction, it has to be said, is generally stronger on subtlety than Richard Raymond and Harry Herbeck’s script.
No prizes for guessing that her childcare skills deteriorate from this already unpromising introduction, though “Emelie” (the title character’s identity is soon made clear) still surprises with the discomfiting specifics of the physical and psychological abuse portrayed on screen. (Among them: A bedtime story that ranks up with “The Babadook” on the list of texts least likely to be deemed ALA Notable.) Anna’s key reveal is arguably dealt a little too early by the writers, though the firming up of her motives does little to impede the film’s buzzing accumulation of menace.
This potentially lurid material is lent considerable ballast and believability by the excellent work of its trio of child actors, including Thomas Bair as youngest brother Christopher. Unaffected and not directed to be especially winsome, they’re particularly convincing as a fractious unit forced into unity in the face of a threat they can identify more certainly than they can understand. Still, “Emelie” is likeliest to be remembered as a vividly out-of-character showcase for Bolger, gutsily playing up the most uncanny implications of her butter-wouldn’t-melt aura. Resisting psychotic grandstanding with much the same restraint as the film around her, the actress imposes danger and exposes damage with the same cool gaze; it’s at the character’s most vulnerable that she’s also most frightening.