I have a complicated relationship with Eli Roth.
Well, actually I don’t. I don’t have a relationship with him at all. I watch his movies and he lives his life looking way too attractive for a horror producer/director. OK. Fine. What I really mean is that I’ve had a huge crush on him for years but am traditionally not fan of his films.
Whew. I’m really glad to get that off my chest and out onto the internet.
It’s not that I don’t want to be a fan. In theory he should be my favorite director. His emphasis on themes and their societal connection sounds like something I’d like. His mixture of sub genre throwback and modern setting is literally what I’m always on the look out for in a sea of retro homage. Hell, I even kinda like that his takeaway from the 80s greats like Carpenter and Craven was to turn his name into a brand (even if that was never the older generation’s intention). All of this should lead to Adrienne super-fandom–but it doesn’t.
This lack of love for Roth’s films is confusing. So I’d like to take a moment to break down the process and figure out where these films go so wrong. And yes, I promise somewhere in here I’ll talk about Knock Knock.
The Roth Style
Roth is known as the creator of the sub genre “torture porn.” Although often used as a “tsk tsk” toward gore fans, the term was originally coined in an article that is more reflective of the movie landscape in general than particularly judgmental about one director.
Even so, I reject the idea of torture porn as negative. As with most things people fear, they dismiss it with a pithy phrase instead of engaging with the material and what it’s trying to say. Hostel was a wildly successful film and spoke to many people regardless of its depictions of torture. The fact that Roth is associated with such a phrase should not count against his work as a whole. In fact, I think it should give him a couple of points.
Roth is a Gen X filmmaker through and through. His focus is often negative and nihilist. I’m down for that. So far so good.
Whether it’s pandemic scares in Cabin Fever or social media slacktivism in The Green Inferno, Roth’s work always explores the current societal landscape.
I don’t have a problem with this in theory, but in practice it often falls flat. I find myself rolling my eyes and saying to the screen, “We know, alright? We get it already.” It’s as if just having the idea is enough for him. Rarely is the social commentary unpacked in a satisfying way. More often it’s sprinkled into the cracks of the film. The social questions being asked survive despite the film, not because of it.
In Knock Knock, Roth’s focus seems to be the differences between Millennials and Gen Xers and …social media? For some reason. Not sure. It doesn’t have any real presence in the film until the third act, then suddenly the antagonists want to use Facebook to further torture their prey. It seems pretty ham-fisted to me. I would have been fine with a movie that simply stuck to exploring the relationships between these two generations and their differences.
Although this aspect of his films is a little bit hairy, I’m still inclined to let it go. So let’s give social commentary an emoji grimace and move on.
The King of the Pitch
The really confusing thing about Eli Roth is that his movies always sound like they should be good. For example:
A team of college activists head to the Amazon to fight for the rights of native tribes, only to become victims of the cannibals they are trying to protect. – The Green Inferno
Whoa! Sounds awesome, right? Roth’s focus was to make a cannibal movie similar to the brutal Italo cannibal films of the 70s and 80s. Even the title is a reference to the mother of all cannibal films, Cannibal Holocaust. And it’s directed by the father of torture porn? Everything about this should be extreme.
Knock Knock is no different.
A loving father is home alone over the weekend when he is visited by two beautiful young women who want to play a seductive and dangerous game.
Add to that a trailer that promises sex, sex, and more sex, and you’re guaranteed to sell tickets. Sure, it doesn’t seem like the most complex story, but everyone likes to be titillated. Plus, some of the best horror movies are based on very simple ideas.
Roth’s ability create compelling ideas never fails to spark my imagination. Each one of his films sounds like it should be a landmark in horror cinema.
What can I say? It gets me every time. I have to give him credit for that.
The biggest problem I have with these movies are the gimmicks. Nearly every one of his films has one, and they never work for me. Generally tied to the social commentary in the piece, the movie gimmick is almost always sophomoric and cheesy.
For example, The Green Inferno was about Millennials and their lack of commitment to a cause. Roth said he was inspired by the viral Kony 2012 campaign that rose suddenly to prominence and disappeared without many being inspired to actual activism. Because of this, the characters are constantly checking social media to see how they’re trending while in the Amazon. We get it, they’re more interested in how they look to others than actually helping people.
At the end of the film, the credits roll as usual, but Roth is ready with his cheesy gimmick. Next to each credited name is the person’s twitter handle. Yes, that’s right, their twitter handle. Just in case you didn’t get the point of the film, here’s another reminder
The problem is it’s not just cheesy, it’s embarrassing.
I went to college with a theater director who put on a production of Lysistrata. If you’re not familiar, that ancient tale is a comedy about politics and sex. The performance was fine, but as you left the theater attendants handed you condoms and voter registration forms. Har har. Get it? Don’t let the man keep you down! Be safe and get out there and vote!
These gimmicks embarrass due to their complete tone deafness. The audience is way ahead of you. They’re smarter than that, and the commitment to the idea makes it all the more cringe-worthy.
It’s kind of like watching your dad explain emojis to the hot twenty-something stewardess as if he created them. He thinks he’s discovered the coolest thing ever, and he can’t wait to show off how hip he is.
Although the gimmick factor is slightly diminished in Knock Knock it’s still there, as Roth has his main character learn about alternative relationships like it’s a concept from another planet. We get it, Evan (Keanu Reeves) is a devoted, monogamous family man who has never thought about a different lifestyle. I buy that, but what I don’t buy is that he’s unfamiliar with the concept. He’s an educated architect from LA–he’s heard of it. And so have we.
In conclusion, it seems that my real problem stems from the execution (no pun intended). Sadly, that’s the part that matters. Often when I sit down to watch one of his films I find that the story doesn’t go half as far as expected. We may get murderous sexy women, but we don’t get the deeper terror of coming to terms with the life-changing choices we’ve made. We get gory cannibal rage, but we’ve already gotten that many times before.
These movies are fine with being surface. They reflect the simplicity of their source material and don’t ask for anything more. Sure, the argument could be made that the movies they are meant to pay homage are surface as well, but I don’t think it’s a good excuse. We only move forward if we continue to innovate.
“Bad artists copy, good artists steal” is a famous quote for a reason. I’m fine with a director using inspiration from past work (Tarantino has made a very successful career out of it), but filter it through a modern lens. Following the exact pattern from past works will not create something fresh. Don’t believe me? Watch Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Are you still reading? If you are, thank you for following me down that rabbit hole. As promised, here is my actual review for the movie.
Knock Knock is a fun little sexual thriller that mixes an over-the-top plot with cheesy performances and sexy visuals. Although I never once feared for the main character (he’d need to be a little more fleshed out for me to have any connection to him), I did enjoy the albeit silly game of cat(s) and mouse that played out between Reeve’s Evan and the two antagonists (the passable Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas).
The ending is one sequence too long, and a truly great opportunity is missed to circle back on one of the more disturbing moments.
Watch this movie when you’re feeling nostalgic for a good bad movie. Don’t watch this movie if an excessive use of the word “daddy” disturbs you.
In the end, no matter the film’s outcome, I keep coming back for more. Roth hooks me with each new film, reeling me into the theater whether I want to go or not.
Is Knock Knock worth the watch? Probably not, but I watched it. I guess the joke’s on me.