It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty-five years since Curtis Hanson released his (can we call it a classic?) excellent movie The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a film that pretty much chilled America to the bone with the prospect of psycho-nannies wanting a little more than the meager pay they get for watching over unruly kids while Mom and Dad are out having A Night Out. Michael Thelin’s debut picture Emelie owes quite a bit to that film, and I say that in a good way. This is a slow-burn pressure cooker of a movie that doesn’t spell its cards immediately; instead, it opts for scenes of domestic playfulness that slowly peel back a rather disturbing character study of a young woman who isn’t just insane, but dangerous.
Much of the movie’s intro is rather tame, involving playful family banter as Mom and Dad prepare themselves for an evening dinner while Anna, the substitute babysitter gets the lowdown on the kids. Once the parents are gone, the tone does a subtle shift, and in almost imperceptible ways, Anna starts to disclose that she has other things in mind than taking care of three children. Things start to get a little uncomfortable when Anna, after a game of hide and seek, calls oldest son Jacob into the bathroom and reveals herself to be sitting on the toilet, having her period, and asking for tampons. [A quick shot of blood on the toilet nails the uneasiness of these scene.] Thelin ratchets up the creep factor even more when Anna forces the daughter to watch her pet hamster get eaten by Jacob’s pet snake, and if you thought this was bad enough, wait until she gathers the kids for a special video. It’s horrifying, more so because of the whole domesticity of the scene where it takes place — and that the parents are completely oblivious.
Michael Thelin delivers a smart thriller that always manages to keep the focus on a family about to experience terror at the hands of a random person who isn’t right in the head. Sarah Bolger, an Irish actress with a striking resemblance to Saoirse Ronan, is quite the stand out here, with her cold blue eyes and cool, detached yet friendly demeanor until the gloves are off. Even then, she doesn’t overplay her character’s psychopathy as other movies with a psycho-nanny tend to do — which I appreciated. Then there is the house: it becomes a character all its own, a trap full of shadows. Some genre tropes make their way into the movie, but that’s to be expected. Falling inches away from pure horror (perhaps due to its running time, a quick 80 minutes including credits), Emelie is an uneasy penny dreadful with atmosphere and suspense to spare.
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