Psychological family horror – that’s a succinct description for Michael Peterson’s Knuckleball. It’s about a boy, Henry (Luca Villacis) who has to stay at his grandfather Jacob’s (Michael Ironside) small town home. It’s only for a few days, but it might be two too many. That’s especially true since we’re seeing this story through a genre where Henry can’t trust anyone, not even his family. Henry already has mixed feelings about Jacob, who thinks that quality time is more about work than it is play.
It uses enough motifs that other horror films show, and some of the framing feels suspect. But it does its best in mixing up its visual settings. There are some scenes place at night and those scenes thankfully have good lighting. But the rest take place in the daytime during winter, when there’s a threat of a snowstorm. The sound design also provides some creepy wind noises and a few subtle yet still obvious musical cues. Nonetheless, darkness isn’t as scary as the people around Henry.
Things go sideways as Jacob dies and Henry tries to call his out of town father Paul (Chenier Hundal). Paul’s shrugs off what ends up a choppy sounding voicemail. But Henry’s mother Mary (Kathleen Munro) insists that they call the local police. Out of resources, Henry gets help from Jacob neighbor. That’s Dixon (Munro Chambers), who has a creepy attachment to Jacob. It then cuts to Connie Munroe (Krista Bridges). She’s the local cop who has to reluctantly check on the boy.
Those are a lot of supporting characters where only two – Henry and Dixon – matter. The former tries to survive as the latter, with secret motivations, decides to kill him. The supporting characters aren’t just the few elements here that don’t work. For one, there’s Jacob who shows up as a ghostly figure to taunt Dixon as he’s failing. Which is, supposedly, something that Jacob should be doing. But it feels gimmicky, like it’s trying to milk too much work from Ironside.
Watching this film also might make its audience search for something innately Canadian about it. It does convey the feeling of isolation that Canadian films have. That’s more true as we’re watching a kid who has to defend himself with a knife. And it’s better than the flashy American horror counterparts, but it’s as if it’s still reliant on American tropes. Other writers who have already seen it while it was gracing festival screens compared this to Home Alone. Which is valid.
What we can appreciate about Knuckleball is that it’s not as passive as other Canadian works. Sure Henry’s just reacting to his new circumstances. But he comes out of windows and scales rooftops to get away from Dixon. And Villacis is good at playing a blank slate whose qualities emerge as problems appear. He also knows how to play with the power dynamics between his character and Dixon. He helps keep audiences in suspense.