Despite a third act change of tone, that plays out like a hybrid of Home Alone (1990) and The Shining (1980), there is still plenty to admire in Michael Thelin’s debut movie. For much of its brisk eighty-two minutes running time, Emelie (2015) is a devilishly good thriller of notably transgressive bent, giving the slasher and home invasion formats a rare matriarchal focus. However, once it has to commit to the familiar trope of the plucky protagonist fighting back against the unwelcome intruder, it loses something vital; the edge and suspense evaporates into a formulaic duke out, and certain generic obligations are dutifully fulfilled.
Sarah Bolger plays the titular character, a demented babysitter spurred into criminality by tragic events, and it’s the kind of performance that crops up and wows only once in a while. Her star-making, nuanced portrayal of a young mother driven to recreating the past, while wrecking the lives of others, is partly why the third act feels a little bit of a let-down. Surely there was a more inspired way to deal with the character? As Emelie openly flirts with the father, enchants (and then repels) the oldest son on the cusp of puberty and torments the little ones with cruel and manipulative acts, her scheming becomes not only malicious – she feeds a pet hamster to a snake and makes them watch – but downright perverse (showing her charges a sex tape made by their parents). Not only does Bolger impress, the littlest cast members have a naturalism so often lacking in American cinema, where kids come across as jaded industry professionals by the time they’re gumming rusks.
For the more adult scenes clever editing is involved, but there is a welcome lack of trained theatre-school polish evident. Such performances, too, help deliver the required mood of dread, as well as emotional engagement. The general tone harks back to the heyday of the slasher movie, its classical style highly reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), as well as the more recent work of Ti West or Adam Wingard. Take for instance the bravura opener, capturing, as it does, in one masterful single take, the abduction of a teenager on an ordinary suburban avenue. It’s the kind of ‘horror in plain sight’ ambience that Halloween masterfully exuded, and the playful transgression is more in line with Messrs. West and Wingard, current kings of the US indie horror scene. (Do not call it ‘mumblegore.’) The scene mentioned makes excellent use of the location, composition and deep-focus cinematography and marks out Thelin as an assured craftsman. If only the ending hadn’t succumbed to genre conformity.