Written by: Rich Herbeck (screenplay, story), Michael Thelin (story)
Directed by: Michael Thelin
Starring: Sarah Bolger, Joshua Rush, and Susan Pourfar
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The babysitter is here.
For decades, the horror genre has thrived on the vulnerability of babysitters, whose unwitting encounters with maniacs carve them into resourceful and indelible final girls. Emelie, on the other hand, flips the script, twisting the usual dynamic into a “babysitter from hell” scenario that feels truly perilous. In theory, the concept is perhaps a few steps removed from the rash of junky 90s-thrillers (that has yet to completely disappear); however, in the hands of director Michael Thelin and his screenwriters, it becomes a mean, nasty piece of work, a film that alternates between gleeful wickedness and genuine insidiousness with ease. Much like the title character itself, it sneaks up on an unsuspecting audience, disarming it with some black-hearted charms before attempting to club them over the head.
An uneasy portrait of corrupted suburbia is captured with an opening long-shot that keeps the audience at a distance as a young girl named Anna blithely walks down the street before being approached by a car. A stranger asks for directions in a ruse that sees the poor girl abducted by a mysterious duo before the camera pans left, turning its attention to a young boy gliding down the street on a bicycle. We learn that he’s the oldest sibling in a family of five, a moody preteen named Jacob (Joshua Rush) who practically barricades himself in his room, much to the dismay of his parents (Chris Beetem & Susan Pourfar). Raising three children has understandably resulted in the need for a night out to celebrate their anniversary, so Dan and Joyce are relieved when they’re able to snag a replacement babysitter (Sarah Bolger) for the evening.
There’s just one problem: the girl—who claims to be a friend of the Thompsons' usual sitter—calls herself “Anna,” just like the doomed girl from the opening scene. Clearly (and the film is not exactly coy about hiding this fact), this “Anna” is not who she claims to be. Soon enough, it becomes obvious that she isn’t what she claims to be either: rather than bring comfort and a watchful eye to this (mostly) tranquil, happy home, she’s come to upend it. In fact, she’s come to fuck it right up, as if she were some kind of mischievous spirit sent with the express purpose of corrupting young minds. She arrives in the unassuming garb of a suburban teen, but she’s hiding a wicked, corrosive soul; even her innocuous questions about the children each having their own cell phones carries a sinister intent. It’s like she’s casing the joint, only you’re not quite sure what she’s after.
Part of the (admittedly weird) fun here is teasing out just how depraved Anna is. Her intrusion is practically impish at first: she returns Jacob’s confiscated handheld videogame, insisting that what his absent parents don’t know won’t hurt him. The younger two—a boy and a girl—are allowed to play with off-limit objects around the house, much to their confused delight. Maybe she’s just out to have a little bit of anarchic fun, you think, before she’s suddenly preying on Jacob’s sexual curiosity.
Needless to say, her intentions rev up exponentially; what was once kind of a shifty, slippery presence becomes full-on mean-spirited. Not much is spared from her twisted games: not the children’s poor, ill-fated pets, or their unsullied sense of innocence. At a certain point, you suddenly realize Emelie is an uncomfortable movie to watch as it trawls into some warped, perverse depths without even spilling so much as a drop of blood (well, unless you count the caked blood “Anna” wipes off of her shoe early on). In a clever, subtle turn, Thelin twists the audience’s morbid curiosity into a genuinely aghast horror. This is the rare movie that had me squirming in my seat because it’s legitimately inappropriate. It occurs to me that this is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay a movie—I didn’t even want to delight in Emelie after initially kind of snickering at it.
Much of this stems from Thelin’s treatment of the material. From the outset, Emelie is menacing as hell—even its humor is a pitch black sort of depravity that doesn’t bring levity so much as it sends the proceedings down an even screwier path. Thelin patiently builds suspense, taking his time to slowly transform this sleek suburban abode into Anna’s own funhouse of horrors. What’s most discomforting is his unflinching gaze, as his camera often lingers for maximum cringe-inducing effect. You sometimes find yourself wishing he’d cut away, and, when he does, he somehow find something worse. For example, a scene involving a horrific showdown between a pet snake and a pet hamster features two heartbreaking shots—and that’s before Thelin cuts to the daughter weeping at the sight of her pet being slowly devoured.
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, Emelie does not fuck around, but Thelin masterfully resists plunging headlong into trashy pleasures. The performances—from the three child actors to Bolger—keep the film grounded, preventing it from degenerating into a goofy cartoon. You don’t want to see anything awful happen to these kids because they’re more authentically precious than they are precocious. That you feel like something terrible absolutely could happen to them is a testament to both the twisted screenplay and Bolger’s complex turn as “Anna” (or the titular Emelie, as she’s eventually revealed to be).
Intrigue surrounds this bad babysitter, who carries a hint of sadness even in her most gleefully warped moments: you catch a glimpse of some kind of method to her madness in quiet moments that hint at some sort of longing that’s eventually confirmed when she narrates her own history as if it were an actual bedtime story. An unexpected wrinkle of empathy is tossed into the mix like a curveball: Emelie becomes less a boogeyman and more of a tragic figure—but not so much so that you don’t want to see her would-be victims deliver some righteous comeuppance.
It’s not exactly a spoiler to reveal the film does eventually become a cat-and-mouse thriller, one that’s precisely wound and tuned before it uncoils with the same energy as those aforementioned junk thrillers. It’s here that Thelin finally indulges in those impulses, though he is careful not to lose his grip as he sequences unexpected visitors, crafty violence, and unexpected jolts. Because the first half of the film is so terrifically grounded and invested in these characters, this stuff is actually suspenseful: unlike many similar films, you’re not primarily watching it with that morbid, trainwreck curiosity—rather, you find yourself wrapped up in Emelie and Jacob’s savage encounter.
Ultimately, Emelie runs the gamut of emotions: what begins as an ominous, nasty take on a suburban legend ends as a rousing, edge-of-your-seat thriller. In between, a disturbing but affecting portrait of womanhood and motherhood emerges, subtly guiding the viewer towards an unnerving realization that the film captures every parent’s worst nightmares in more ways than one. Sometimes, those nightmares propagate, existing only to continue what may be an endless cycle of misery.
Dark Sky has delivered Emelie to Blu-ray with a disc that boasts the film's trailer and a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as supplements.
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