Don't Let Them In: Roth's perverse, gore-free "Knock Knock" tortures Keanu Reeves

Knock Knock (2015)
99 min., rated R.

Making his name on gut-bucket splatter ("Cabin Fever," "Hostel") that many naysayers still label as "torture porn" and taking time off after 2007's "Hostel: Part II," director Eli Roth now has two movies released in the same month. Besides the delayed, disappointing cannibal gore-show "The Green Inferno," Roth shows a slight growth with his fifth feature, "Knock Knock," a homage to 1977's obscure male-entrapment sleazefest "Death Game" that actually features no gore and very little blood. It's still torturous, but in a different way with infidelity leading to the punishment of psychological taunting. A film like this doesn't require subtlety to be successful, and Roth knows perfectly well that more trash is for the better. A seemingly standard and tawdry home-invasion psychosexual-thriller, "Knock Knock" takes more chances than not by taking itself seriously and acting like a dark farce all at once.

Happily married 43-year-old deejay-turned-architect Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) stays back at his modern Hollywood Hills home to get some work done on a project as his artist wife (Ignacia Allamand) takes the kids to the beach over a long Father's Day weekend. During a rainstorm his first night of baching it, he gets a knock at his door by two dolled-up, soaking-wet young women, Genesis (Lorenzo Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), who were dropped off at the wrong address for a party, and invites them in to get warm. Evan calls them an Uber, but for a 45-minute wait, it doesn't take long before the two tarts ask to put their clothes in the dryer and become very open about sex. Next thing Evan knows, they come on to him and prod him into having a threesome. In the morning, Genesis and Bel surprise Evan with breakfast but also a messy kitchen and very childish behavior. Evan has regrets and eventually gets forceful, asking them to leave. They refuse by vandalizing his wife's sculptures and threatening him with statutory rape charges. Once Evan drops Genesis and Bel off somewhere, that won't be the last time he sees them. His life is just beginning to get torn apart.

A change of pace for Eli Roth, "Knock Knock" is a perverse, slightly satirical cheap-thrills entertainment that goes off its rocker into taboo territory and turns female empowerment into a deadly weapon. Roth is an expert of escalation and applies his quirky sense of humor better here than he did in "The Green Inferno." The way Genesis and Bel pretend to be a game-show host and "Vanna White," respectively, and try to deafen former deejay Evan with his vinyl collection if he answers a question incorrectly is mined well for tension and discomfort. With only a passing resemblance to Roth's own "Hostel" (a male fantasy becomes a torturous nightmare) and Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" (even the two female predators change into white robes instead of white tennis apparel), the film is a fairly one-note cautionary tale without much of a clear take. From a screenplay Roth co-wrote with Nicolás López (2013's "Aftershock") and Guillermo Amoedo (2015's "The Green Inferno"), it seems as if they are saying this: when a family man does a nice thing by taking two vulnerable, attractive young women out of the rain and into his home and then takes a shower with them for a little ménage à trois, he deserves to be punished. 

Keanu Reeves must be a masochist and completely aware of his reputation for not being the most skilled thespian  in the world because he's quite a good sport in playing the terrorized, emotionally exhausted Evan. When he's eventually tied up and gets to be ungagged, Reeves lets out such a histrionic expletive-laden tirade that equates the women to "free pizza" and then comes close to the campy levels of Nicolas Cage's multiple bee stings in "The Wicker Man" ("My ears! My ears!" replaces "Not the bees! My eyes! My eyes!"). Compared to last year's "John Wick," where Reeves played a hitman of few words, he's more effective with less dialogue. As femme fatales Genesis and Bel, Lorenzo Izzo (Eli Roth's real-life wife/ongoing lead) and Ana de Armas do grab one's attention, flipping the switch from seemingly innocent sex kittens to crazy and unpredictable life-ruiners as Genesis and Bel (if those are even their real names). "You don't look that dangerous," Evan foolishly says when he first lets them in, but what they're capable of becomes clear. They're juvenile yet hyper-sexual creatures with motives that also become progressively clearer yet not too clear-cut in a conclusion that makes death a desirable option for poor Evan, or else he has a lot of explaining to do to his wife.

Save for a few secondary characters—Colleen Camp, who essentially played the same role as the "free pizza" with Sondra Locke (both of them getting producing credit here), has a bit role as a nosy massage therapist"Knock Knock" is a three-character chamber piece that's unafraid to get mean or go for broke. Roth stages the action well within one location (Santiago, Chile believably subs for Los Angeles) and cinematographer Antonio Quercia's classy lensing belies the trashy material in a good way. Sharply beginning with the camera gliding through the art-decorated hallways of Evan's family home and ending with The Pixes' "Where Is My Mind?" with the art-decorated hallways crudely defaced, "Knock Knock" is a sick joke that thinks it has more of a point to make than it really does, but there is a gleefully sick sense of fun that most erotic thrillers lack these days.

Grade: B -