Michael Ironside is the best part of Michael Peterson’s horror-thriller Knuckleball, an 89-minute film that aims for lean but just ends up as slight. As Jacob, grandfather to the young boy Henry (Luca Villacis) who has been thrust into his care while his parents are away, Ironside is all gruff posturing, barking out commands and teaching his grandson to throw a baseball in the same stern voice. He instantly gives the impression of a man guarding some dark secret. So when he dies 20 minutes into the film, his absence is felt and the film never fully recovers.
But his death does set the wonderfully excruciating stage for the rest of the film. Stranded in the middle of the woods, at his grandfather’s technology-deficient home, Henry realizes he left his phone charger in his parents’ car. But his phone’s not the only thing that’s dead. Henry discovers his grandfather’s body and panic sets in. Unable to reach his parents for help—Jacob doesn’t have a landline—the boy must turn to Jacob’s strange, weaselly neighbor Dixon (Munro Chambers). One problem: Dixon wants to murder Henry.
What follows is yet another gory variation on Home Alone. Henry sets traps for his pursuer, pegs him with baseballs to keep him at bay and even retaliates with a kitchen knife. It’s all very well put together, even intermittently tense, but never is it ingenious or particularly clever. Instead, everything in Knuckleball seems culled from other, better films. When Peterson pays homage to The Shining, he simply stages its most iconic scene, slightly subverting expectations only after he’s recreated its key images.
As the chase rushes towards a final confrontation, a few twists try to enliven the proceedings or enrich the text. But every revelation is rote and predictable. That secret Ironside seems like he’s guarding? It’s as typical and lacking in depth as one might expect. Still, it’s probably smart that the film shies away from too much explanation when unearthing secrets because the decision to keep certain ideas vague leaves lingering questions more interesting than anything else here.
Knuckleball had its Québec premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.
Directed by Michael Peterson; written by Kevin Cockle, Michael Peterson, and Jordan Scott; starring Michael Ironside, Luca Villacis, and Munro Chambers; 89 minutes.