Weekend Highlights (KNOCK KNOCK, THE FINAL GIRLS)

Eli Roth is a pretty consistent filmmaker in my eyes. His work never fails to entertain me and it’s been great having him back after a prolonged absence (2008’s Hostel: Part II was his last movie released before this year). A few weeks back, I caught his long-delayed Green Inferno in limited release. I wasn’t remotely disappointed in his approach to modern day cannibal horror or lazy activism. This weekend brought his home invasion thriller, Knock Knock, to VOD, and I was glad to check it out.

If you’ve seen the trailers for Knock Knock then you have a pretty good idea what to expect. On a dark and stormy night, two young girls (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) show up on Evan Webber’s  doorstop looking for a nearby party. Evan (Keanu Reeves) invites them in out of the weather so they can warm up and call for a ride. They wind up sticking around, subjecting Evan temptations he finds he cannot resist.

Knock Knock is something of a departure for Eli Roth, who steps outside the comfort of his usual gore set pieces to take the reigns of his first remake. An update of the seemingly forgotten 1977 thriller Death Game (that film’s star, Colleen Camp, produced this and appears briefly), Roth demonstrates a better handle on the source material. The first half is as playful as its mysterious houseguests, undercut with nicely mounting suspense.

Knock Knock can’t sustain that momentum, however, giving way to a third act that requires its characters to do incredibly stupid things to keep the movie going. Nothing as stupid as when someone finds Evan bound and tied to a chair, but races off to defend a piece of artwork the girls are about to demolish. You can see the screenwriters (Roth among them) pulling the strings behind the scenes, and it hurts the movie’s lasting impression. But Knock Knock remains worth seeing for the unexpected comedy that grows more aggressive as it chugs along.

Comparisons to David Slade’s Hard Candy are inevitable, but even if you ignore that Knock Knock is a remake of a nearly 40 year old film, there’s plenty of differences between the two. Roth isn’t interested in the “did he or didn’t he” question that defined Slade’s movie, making it compelling, infuriating, and terrifying by turn. Instead, Roth explores an uncomfortable thesis about men in general: That most of us would’ve done exactly as Evan did. It’s punctuated by a scene where Reeves pleads for his life while attempting to absolve himself of all blame (birthing the movie’s greatest line that will not be spoiled here). 

Knock Knock left me attempting to rationalize all the ways I would’ve fared better than Evan, and that’s why this movie works. It’s not perfect, but it holds a mirror to its audience in order to reflect some uncomfortable truths. Best of all, it does so with an entertaining wink and a smile.

The-Final-Girls-s

By contrast, The Final Girls is an unexpectedly sweet story about grief and loss that happens to be told in the language of an 80s slasher. It has so much going for it, so much, that it becomes disappointing when it doesn’t knock your socks off completely. It’s also so accomplished at times that it’s easy to forgive when it misses the mark.

Teenage Max (Taissa Farmiga) is coaxed into attending a revival screening of “Camp Bloodbath”, an 80s slasher movie that features her late mother in one of her earliest, and best known, roles. When a fire breaks out in the theater, Max and her friends escape through a cut in the screen and find themselves thrust into the movie itself.  Now, they’re living “Camp Bloodbath,” and Max finds herself forming an unexpected bond with Nancy (Malin Akerman), the ill-fated camp counselor portrayed by her mother.

This is a pretty ingenious take on the slasher movie, and director Todd Strauss-Schulson nails the look and feel of mid 80s stalk-and-slash fare. “Camp Bloodbath” is a barely disguised Friday the 13th clone, complete with identical music cues and a Jason-like killer who moves exactly like Kane Hodder (despite looking most like Freddy Vs. Jason‘s iteration). Max and her friends are beholden to the movie’s stylistic choices, like traveling back to the 50s once the movie cuts to a flashback, or being trapped in slow motion during a pivotal chance sequence. These little touches are incredibly fun, and that attention to detail made me wish the script had handled the subgenre with a little more wit.

It’s the one area where I think The Final Girls fails. Once our heroes find themselves trapped inside “Camp Bloodbath,” the “film” characters act like little more than the broadest of stereotypes. That’s the point and I get it. But a lot of the comedy is one note, and much of it lands with a thud. The sex-obsessed jock who can’t stop thinking about getting laid, even when he’s two seconds away from death, for example, and the way that the killer shows up within seconds of anyone so much as flirting with promiscuity. The Final Girls attempts to spoof the slasher with the same old jokes and that’s a bummer.

The PG-13 rating also guarantees a lack of graphic slasher violence and exploitation. This feels like a detriment when the movie has otherwise gone out of its way to replicate the look and feel of that era. Max and co. travel into a movie that’s heralded for the elements we never get to see. When stabbings and flashings occur below the camera, it’s easy to feel the PG-13 rating holding the movie back while ensuring the masked villain, Billy Murphy, never exudes the type of menace he should.

It’s a good thing that everything else about The Final Girls works wonders. The visuals are stylish, and the cast is great, even when the material occasionally betrays them (I wanted to laugh at Adam Devine more than I did). As Max, Farmiga does honest and emotional work, but it’s Malin Akerman who gives the movie its warmth and sweetness. She had me right from the start with her rendition of Bette Davis Eyes, and the audience feels her loss as much as Max does.

The Final Girls tugs at your heartstrings repeatedly, and it’s amazing how it feels both earned and organic each time. It’s a genuine feel good film, and I love that its filmmakers were able to accomplish this in a movie that’s ultimately about a lunatic who murders teenagers. I may not have loved it as much as some, but I’m already thinking about picking up the Blu-ray to show friends once it comes out.

If you’re feeling masochistic enough to keep up with everything I’m watching, you can give me a follow on Letterboxd, or check back here every Monday where I’ll try and do a quick recap of any notable viewings I’ve had over the previous week.

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