Eli Roth occupies something of a precarious position among horror fans. Like Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie, Roth finds much of his inspiration from a specific time period and style of filmmaking – 70s Grindhouse thrillers. Most of Roth’s filmography recalls the Grindhouse visual and narrative styles. Eventually Roth directly indulged his filmmaking tastes when he made The Green Inferno – a tribute to Cannibal Holocaust. Two years later, Roth jumped early onto the Keanu-saince and cast Keanu Reeves in his remake of an obscure 70s Grindhouse thriller, Death Game. An obscure piece of B-movie exploitation filmmaking, Death Game was probably best known – if recognized at all – for casting a young Sandra Locke and Colleen Camp. Not surprisingly, Roth dug this one up for a 2015 remake – Knock Knock.
With his wife away for the weekend, wealthy businessman George Manning pays for a Good Samaritan act. During a rainstorm, two young women show up on his doorstep and ask to use his phone. But the evening escalates quicky and the women tempt and seduce George. However, the next morning, the women won’t leave and quickly become erratic and violent. Soon George’s fantasy turns into a nightmare when the women tie him to a chair and put him on ‘trial’.
Death Game (1977) An Odd Grindhouse Thriller That May Be Obscure for a Reason
Two things are immediately apparent about the 1977 psychological thriller Death Game. First, it’s definitely a 70s movie with its intentionally (or otherwise) dreamy visuals and the kind of music your parents probably listened to while drinking wine on the weekend. Second, Death Game is absolutely a Grindhouse exploitation thriller – perfectly reflective of the era in which it was produced. A relatively early example of a home invasion thriller, Death Game is a odd movie that’s never really ‘good’ in any traditional sense. In fact, director Peter S. Traynor’s B-movie is occasionally incomprehensible. Apparently, Seymour Cassel eventually walked off the set over creative disagreements. Regardless of the veracity of that story, Death Game quickly loses its grip on the exploitative premise.
A relatively early example of a home invasion thriller, Death Game is a odd movie that’s never really ‘good’ in any traditional sense.
And yes, Traynor’s exploitation thriller is exploitative, offering little meaning or purpose to its seedy revenge premise. Though Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross’ makes mention of the young ladies’ fathers abusing them it serves no larger theme other than to give their vengeance some rationale. Make no mistake about it – Traynor uses the premise of Sandra Locke and Colleen Camp seducing Cassel for pure exploitation. Yet Death Game doesn’t do much with its premise beyond the first act. That is, it quickly becomes tedious stuff – rarely tense or shocking – as Locke and Camp are mostly just annoying. And the ending all but erases any possibility that there was a greater purpose to the story.
Knock Knock (2015) Clears a Low Hurdle on Improving Over Death Game
Aside from Rob Zombie or Quentin Tarantino, who better to remake a 70s Grindhouse thriller than Eli Roth. And Roth had experience re-imagining a classic Grindhouse when he filmed The Green Inferno two years earlier. Like that Grindhouse movie, Knock Knock is a much cleaner production featuring a much bigger star in Keanu Reeves. In other words, Knock Knock is Grindhouse in its premise but its execution lacks any of the visual call signs we’d associate with the film style. The result – this is an immediately better movie on every measure. Roth follows the premise but his execution is more coherent and he adds a bit tension to the thriller. Yet Knock Knock also feels like it’s trying to be a satirical thriller and Roth isn’t quite subtle enough to pull that off.
Yet Knock Knock also feels like it’s trying to be a satirical thriller and Roth isn’t quite subtle enough to pull that off.
Specifically, Roth does a better job of giving his tormentors – played by Ana de Armas and Lorenza Izzo – a sense of purpose. Among the tweaks to Death Game, Reeves’ wealthy Evan Webber is more complicit in his own victimization and, as a result, comes off as less sympathetic. In addition, Knock Knock better handles the motivations of its young female tormenters. On one hand, Roth treats the female antagonists’ rage a bit more subtly, while also giving de Armas and Izzo more purpose. Not everything in this remake works. Roth’s take on the concept is more coherent but it’s also less interesting visually as it lacks the nostalgic value of Grindhouse aesthetics. Since the satire isn’t always as biting as necessary, there’s also a noticeable lack of tension. Fortunately, Roth gets the finale right – a significant improvement over the source material – and it’s razor sharp.
Death Game and Knock Knock Are Odd Entries for Different Generations of B-Movie Lovers
Neither Death Game nor Knock Knock are ‘good’ home invasion thrillers. To say Knock Knock is ‘better’ is speaking strictly in relative terms. Both thrillers are watchable for entirely different reason. Whereas Death Game is a strangely intriguing, albeit flawed, time capsule, Knock Knock improves on the premise by taking itself less seriously and adding some satire. No one’s ever going to confuse either of these movies as a feminist thriller. And Knock Knock probably falls somewhere in the middle of Roth’s film résumé. Each of these thrillers may be best described as ‘rainy day’ movies for different generations of cult film lovers.