By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Michael Ironside, Luca Villacis and Munro Chambers
Directed by Michael Peterson
Written by Michael Peterson and Kevin Cockle
Freestyle Digital Releasing (U.S.) & Raven Banner (Canada)
Sometimes a game of catch with Gramps is simply an exercise in good old-fashioned bonding. Other times, it’s training to survive a lengthy assault by a murderously insane sexual predator carrying around a baseball bat as well as a metric ton of serious Daddy and Mommy issues.
You just never can tell, the horror-thriller KNUCKLEBALL (in select theatres and on VOD/digital HD today) seems to warn us, so it’s best to take perfecting that windup seriously. And put some heat on that ball, boy. Your life may depend on it.
The early hype on KNUCKLEBALL—from press release to virtually every early review—pegs this highly effective child-in-peril flick as a “horror HOME ALONE,” and though we strive for originality here, that touchstone is hard to deny or replace. Particularly if you toss a few “by way of”s in there for good measure—FARGO, THE SHINING and MISERY all fit the bill.
Here’s the setup: Preteen Henry (Luca Villacis) is carted out to the rural tundra-esque middle of nowhere by his hyper-sensitive parents to spend some time with his extremely gruff and somewhat estranged Grandpa Jacob (a delightfully surly Michael Ironside). The taillights of his folks’ fancy yuppie car have barely faded into the distance when Jacob shows Henry to a pile of manure and thrusts a shovel into his hands. The visit does get (briefly) less…shitty: After Grandpa catches Henry throwing snowballs at the side of the barn, he fetches a bag of baseballs and—with a deftness and alacrity that suggests he perhaps missed his calling as a coach—turns the kid into a target-hitting knuckleball master. (Foreshadowing!)
The thaw is short-lived. Henry winds up alone in the isolated home, and because he killed his phone battery playing video games—insert gratuitous jab at too-digitized Generation Z here—the panicky child is forced to seek help at the home of the only neighbor for miles. Alas, the occupant, Dixon (Ironside’s TURBO KID co-star Munro Chambers), quickly gets his creeper on, making clear he has an ax to grind with Jacob and co. over some murky dark family-history connection. The situation rapidly escalates to an agonizingly drawn-out attempt to coax the kid into drinking a Coke laced with drugs. (A Wet Bandit this dude most assuredly is not.) For the next hour, we watch as Henry employs his wits and a seemingly natural proclivity for violence to fight off his increasingly desperate and demented attacker. Will the boy ultimately take after his fey parents or flinty, bad-ass Jacob?
To tell the truth, some of the more conspiratorial backstory and ghostly appearances peppered throughout KNUCKLEBALL are at times more than a little convoluted. In its pure fight-because-there’s-no-flight sequences, however, the film truly excels. Director/co-scripter Michael Peterson proves quite adept at believably setting the stage, ratcheting up the tension, holding you there while every muscle in your body tightens and breath involuntarily bates, until finally providing a release…only to put you through the whole process, with clever variations, again and again.
A stellar cast aids Peterson immensely in this effort. We likely don’t have to get into the primordial awesomeness of Ironside in this space, but the ordinary-boy-must-rise-to-overcome-extraordinary-circumstances arc that young Villacis portrays in such a nuanced, naturalistic way here is wholly impressive. On the other side of the scale, Chambers summons forth a complex villain who is alternately sympathetic, vile and terrifying—no small feat.
One thing’s for certain: You’ll never, ever think of the phrase “Play ball” the same way again.