If like me you’re a total sucker for decent home invasion, Michael Peterson’s Knuckleball is a debut worth checking out. Home invasion is an old stalwart fixture of the horror genre and every decade has its hits, from Black Christmas in the 70’s to Funny Games in the 90’s, there’s been plenty to fear from escaped convicts and deranged nieghbours. Films like The Strangers, You’re Next, and Them have delivered fresh contemporary twists on the sub-genre, but Peterson’s Knuckleball is a dangerous, perfectly conceived home invasion for 2018. It’s also got one of cult star Michael Ironside’s best roles of the past few years.
Following in the footsteps of Kevin McAllister, Lucas is a savvy twelve year old boy left with his mysterous grandad (Ironside) whilst mum and dad attend a funeral. Before manual labor and playing ball can help the two bond, Henry’s secretive grandfather dies in the night, leaving the house undefended.
Obviously things don’t go to plan for anyone. Peterson is gifted, amongst other things, with a talent for a well-paced story. In a few seconds he can layer brief details until we’re crushed by an avalanche of tension. Yet, Peterson never strains the boundaries of the world he drafts. It never becomes an 80s infused schlock fest. In tone, it’s closer to Straw Dogs than Home Alone, in its tensions. Knuckleball is also relatively straightforward and doesnt need gimmicky twists and turns; it sets the stage and from there it’s a pretty immediate cat and mouse film. Whilst the audience squirms, Henry gets to work. And boy does this kid know how to fight back.
It’s impossible to review a film like this without mentioning Home Alone. And though there have been interesting kid-centric home invasion films (Torment, The Aggression Scale), it’s been a while since someone made such a perfect contemporary counter-point to Chris Columbus’ festive frolicking. Home Alone is slapstick, borne from the simple fact we know Kevin McCallister is totally safe. We know he was never going to get raped by Harry or bludgeoned to death by Marv. Knuckleball doesn’t have that safety net of censorship and zeitgeist. We live in a post-IT world where anything goes, and Peterson knows it.
And though Peterson doesn’t quite indulge in dismembering his young star, the danger is palpable. Everyone on screen, and in the audience, knows what’s at stake. The word pedophile doesn’t once come up, but Ironside’s enraged and, dare I say, terrified reaction to the loner next door conveys what we need to know instantly. When Ironside steps out of the equation it’s genuinely chilling, the air becomes thick and the mood nose-dives into territory far more intense than the charming oddball family drama that’s unfurled in the first act. Its fitting that losing its A-Lister should leave Knuckleball in the dark and the film actually benefits from Ironside’s limited involvement. For one thing, it allows young star Luca Villacis to take centre stage, and also challenges Peterson’s film to survive the death of its star. So many Indy projects slap an A-Lister’s name on the poster for clicks but disappoint with little more than a cameo. Peterson is more savvy than most though.
Without spoiling anything it’s a great ride that doesn’t treat its subject flippantly. Like Jon Watts Cop Car and Clown, Bustillo and Maury’s Among the Living and a handful of others, it’s creating a new sub-genre of gritty thrillers where kids are subjected to horrors previously hidden from them.
Asside from real feels, buckets of catharsis, an intriguing mystery, and a break out turn from Villacis, it’s also got one of Michael Ironside’s most complex turns in years. Impressive debut.
Dir. Michael Peterson
Stars. Luca Villacis, Munro Chambers, Michael Ironside, Kathleen Munroe, Chenier Hundal, Julian Black Antelope