Twelve year old Henry (Luca Villacis) reluctantly spends the week with his stern grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside) at an isolated farmhouse in the frozen wastes of Alberta, Canada while mom Mary (Kathleen Munroe) and dad Paul (Chenier Hundal) attend a funeral. From an initially strained relationship, Henry slowly starts to bond with the grizzled old man. Yet he is increasingly unnerved by the suspect behaviour of Jacob’s young neighbour Dixon (Munro Chambers). Things only get worse the next morning after Henry makes a grisly discovery.
Released two years before the higher profiled Becky (2020) the Canadian made Knuckleball deals in a vaguely similar mix of angsty adolescent drama, slasher thrills and Home Alone (1990) style antics. It is worth noting all three films owe a debt to René Manzor’s far wittier cult French oddity 3615 code Père Noël (1989) a.k.a. Deadly Games a.k.a. Game Over. Even the vast, unforgiving snowscape that serves as the brutal backdrop to Knuckleball lends the film a distinctively bleaker, albeit picturesque edge. Following up his RPG spoof comedy Lloyd the Conqueror (2011), writer-director Michael Peterson assembles a taut, involving horror-thriller that only occasionally stumbles through unnecessarily vague storytelling.
Pacy direction ensures the film flows nicely even throughout the laborious set-up of the first act. However once Knuckleball jumps head-first into its Home Alone-derived midsection, as Henry fortifies grandpa’s house with barbed wire and improvised booby-traps, the script all but abandons all pretense at explaining why this seemingly ordinary kid is so resourceful. Or why Munro Chambers as Dixon, in an impressive departure from his last role opposite Michael Ironside in Turbo Kid (2015), is such a goddamn loon. As a psychological thriller it is skin deep and skews closer to the videogames Henry plays on his cell-phone. All the characters come across as inscrutable. They seem damaged yet the film, whilst providing the odd glimpse into their tortured psyches (including Henry’s taciturn, pill-popping mom’s sporadic flashbacks to her own mother’s ambiguous suicide), is curiously reticent when it comes to explaining why. As with Home Alone the casual attitude to a child committing acts of violence, even in self-defense, is unsettling. Henry actually does more damage to villain Dixon than he does to him.
Peterson lifts extensively from Stephen King adaptations The Shining (1980) and Misery (1990) in his staging of the stalk and chase scenes, hero trapped in a frozen waste, a subplot concerning an inquisitive, doomed lady sheriff and of course Chambers’ Jack Nicholson-like twitchy psychosis. At one point it even looks like he is about to restage the iconic "Here’s Johnny!" scene.