Kurtis David Harder continues to be prolific with a number of projects on the back of his interesting virtual reality thriller Incontrol, which played at last year's London Frightfest. One of his latest films, which he co-produced, is Knuckleball, a psychological family horror film which has been screened at this year's Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Canadian horror does have a prestigious history, given the legacy of director David Cronenberg. The 1980s VHS generation certainly had its fair share of it, with his trilogy of science-gone-wrong cult hits Shivers (AKA They Came From Within), Rabid, and The Brood. Throughout his career, Cronenberg maintained independence from Hollywood, although he did make The Fly for a major studio (Twentieth Century Fox). Peter Medak's The Changeling is another well-loved Canadian horror film, with as shocking an opening as you could get and a tour-de-force performance from George C. Scott.
And so to Knuckleball, directed by Michael Peterson and a film that is already an Official Selection at Cinequest, Calgary Underground Film Festival and Dead by Dawn, all in 2018. It's a dark tale of family trauma and relationships that uses some classic horror motifs and through-lines to subvert expectations.
Henry (Luca Villacis) is left in an isolated farmhouse in the Canadian countryside with grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside, returning to the Canadian horror arena that made his name in Scanners) by his parents. A family emergency has forced them to leave Henry here, amidst a bad winter storm. Jacob makes his point to his grandson straight on by getting him to perform tasks around the farm, like shovelling manure and fetching wood. However, Henry soon meets screwy neighbour Dixon (Munro Williams), who seems to have more than a passing interest in the young arrival.
Peterson takes his time setting out his stall here, and initially you might think that the movie is going to take a predictable path. Characters seem to be standard for the genre and you will probably think overall it isn't particularly convincing, but this is where the film's key strength becomes apparent and you are subsequently wrong-footed into seeing how all this will pan out. Refreshingly, unlike a lot of horror films, characters are not passive bystanders like those wandering stupidities you see in Friday The 13th. Henry does have a fair amount of intelligence, and plays off both Jacob and Dixon with a sense that something isn't quite right here.
There is a bit of Home Alone and The Shining about Knuckleball, but those are more visual points of reference than a direct comparison. It is a movie about listening as well as seeing, as vital points and background to the story are revealed gradually, particularly in the final third. This is a slow-burner that will draw you in, with an eerie sense of atmosphere and style coupled with some excellent cinematography by Jon Thomas. One to be applauded for trying something different with conventional horror themes.
KNUCKLEBALL / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: MICHAEL PETERSON / SCREENPLAY: KEVIN COCKLE, MICHAEL PETERSON / STARRING: MICHAEL IRONSIDE, MUNRO CHAMBERS, LUCA VILLACIS / RELEASE DATE: TBC