KNOCK KNOCK: RAPE AND REVENGE?
October 2015 | R | (USA) | Eli Roth | 99 min |
Synopsis: While his wife and children are at the beach, Evan (Keanu Reeves) opens the door late at night to find two apparently stranded rain-drenched young women—Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas)—at his door. He lets them in, lets them dry their clothes, and calls a car for them. They successfully “seduce” him, however, which begins their sadistic weekend-long “game” with him.
Eli Roth’s Knock Knock has been receiving mostly dismal reviews, as well as a few more outraged assessments. Revenge Honey of The Horror Honeys launches an angry attack on the politics of the film, and she nails its more objectionable qualities—its racism and homophobia as well as the way it can certainly be viewed as making a mockery of child abuse. She writes that she considers the film “frontrunner for the worst film of 2015” and that it’s “downright disgusting.”[i]
I get how someone could feel that way about Knock Knock, but then horror films are supposed to push people’s buttons—and “downright disgusting” is a phrase that signals there’s probably something interesting going on.
I went into Knock Knock expecting it to be a version of Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)—which it’s not. In fact, the film is interesting when it becomes clear it’s not Fatal Attraction. Genesis and Bel, it turns out, have not the slightest interest in a relationship with Evan—unlike the ill-fated Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in her inexplicable pursuit of the slimy Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas). The two twenty-something young women of Roth’s film have something else in mind than love, marriage, and babies. They want to lure Evan into having sex with them—and then they want to punish him for it.
Knock Knock is based on a 1977 film called Death Game, which I hadn’t heard of before and which is streaming on You Tube. (I’ll be watching it in the near future and checking back if there’s anything interesting in what Roth does with his source material). Like Death Game, Knock Knock is firmly in the home invasion sub-genre—evoking Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). It’s a genre I’ve never been a particular fan of, but Roth definitely does some interesting things with it. Not least, in a sub-genre in which the invaders are overwhelmingly male, Roth makes his female—and they are unafraid to use any of the tools in their considerable arsenal.
Knock Knock is also, though, a revenge film—and this is where I think it gets really interesting. Because Bel and Genesis aren’t exacting revenge for injuries they have suffered (as in those classic revenge horror films, Last House on the Left [Wes Craven, 1972] and I Spit on Your Grave [Meir Zarchi, 1978]). Bel and Genesis are on a campaign to avenge all the victimized wives and children of adulterous men: they are acting for others—acting for women. Dare I say it, but doesn’t that put it somewhere in the vicinity of a feminist film?
In fact, one can catch glimpses in it of one of my very favorite feminist films, Marleen Gorris’s 1982 Dutch film A Question of Silence (vastly superior to Knock Knock, I should add!). The films are similar, though, in that A Question of Silence depicts three women who bludgeon a man to death because he represents patriarchal power even though he personally did not injure them. They enact revenge for an impersonal, systemic injury. And Genesis and Bel’s campaign to punish adulterous men partakes to some degree of that impersonality. They are thinking collectively, not personally.
I think Eli Roth is particularly good at inserting monologues in his films (he does it in the Hostel films) that offer pointed although crucially ambiguous social commentary (i.e., they raise questions rather than make assertions). And he does it in Knock Knock.
As Bel and Genesis enact their excruciating climactic torture of Evan, Bel tells him that “it was just a game,” adding: “You know what, for a moment I thought you were the one who’d say no. And now we have to play again with someone else.” Genesis continues: “You know what’s funny? They never say no. No matter who they are. No matter how much they love their families. You’re all the same.” A bit heavy-handed, perhaps, but made much more complicated by what happens earlier. Because Evan did say no—repeatedly, which raises the central question of the film: was he raped?
As they wait for the car that Evan called, Bel and Genesis pull out all the stops to “seduce” him—and he refuses them over and over. They finally resort to rather strenuous tactics that Evan—again—tells them to stop. They don’t, and, eventually, we see he’s a full participant. But only after being coerced. The film thus raises the thorny issue of men’s rape by women. And in the most interesting scene of the film, it tackles Evan’s own attempt to deal with whether or not he was victimized—or how he was victimized.
He’s tied up and Bel and Genesis have just informed him they plan to execute him at dawn, which causes him to launch into a tirade against them. Evan’s screed dizzyingly vacillates between voicing his actual victimization (and possible rape) and expressing utter male entitlement to women’s bodies. I’ve rarely felt myself swing so violently back and forth between sympathy and dislike in such a compressed period of time.
On the one hand, Evan (accurately) yells at them that “You f—cked me. You came to my house. You came to me. You came on to me.” On the other hand, he offers one of the most stunning (and telling) lines in the film: “It was free pizza. Free f—cking pizza. It just showed up at my f—cking door. What am I supposed to do?” In comparing the women to “free pizza,” in saying there was no possible way he couldn’t take them up on what they were offering, Evan obviously suggests he wasn’t victimized—and his claim makes it clear why some find it hard to get their mind around the possibility of a man being raped by a woman (with the presumed caveats “attractive” and “young” woman). In one moment, then, Evan embodies both a potential rape victim and the man who can (because he always wants sex when it’s offered) never be raped by a woman.
Despite its many flaws, then, Knock Knock is interesting for this moment, for the space it opens up to the complexities surrounding men’s rape and male privilege—as well as for the way it intervenes in the revenge subgenre of horror with its heroines’ distinctly impersonal vengeance and its suggestion of a collective feminist intent.