If you were just going by its plot description, Michael Peterson’s Knuckleball could very well sound like a darker, “horror-ified” version of Home Alone. The protagonist of the film is Henry (Luca Villacis), a 12-year old boy who, like so many kids his age, enjoys playing video games to a fault. At the movie’s start, his parents Mary (Kathleen Munroe) and Paul (Chenier Hundal) have decided to drop him off at the house of his grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside) – ostensibly because they have to go to a cousin’s funeral, but really because they need some “alone time.”
You could forgive Henry for feeling a little bummed. Jacob’s house is actually a farm located in the middle of nowhere. Far from being friendly, moreover, Jacob prefers to lecture Henry about the fact that “work ain’t fun.” And instead of getting the chance to play games, Henry is forced to spend his time shoveling manure. In spite of it all, Henry eventually, unexpectedly finds himself developing a rapport with Jacob. That is, until Jacob suddenly dies – leaving Henry to deal with both an oncoming snowstorm and a creepy, not-so-gentle neighbor named Dixon (Munro Chambers).
“…Jacob suddenly dies – leaving Henry to deal with both an oncoming snowstorm and a creepy, not-so-gentle neighbor…”
Its premise may not be particularly original. But with it, Knuckleball could still have made for an effective movie, a horror film that’d also have doubled as a meditation on family. In actuality, however, Knuckleball ends up falling into a subcategory of horror films that I like to call “music-dependent.” Take away Michelle Osis and David Arcus’ scary-sounding score, in other words, and the film’s myriad flaws become woefully apparent. Nonsensical plot turns. Potentially intriguing characters who never get developed. A climax that unfolds like a prolonged video game. A villain whose evil intentions are blatantly telegraphed via predictably low-key lighting. And so on.
All that said, there are a couple of things that redeem this work. First, despite his limited screen time, Ironside manages to turn a caricatural role – what are grandparents if not cranky? – into something that looks more like a real human being. And second, despite its heavy-handed usage of dark lighting, Jon Thomas’ cinematography still lends the film an appropriately wintery atmosphere of desolation and loneliness. In their best moments, both of these men’s contributions carry remarkable elegance – a quality, sadly, that’s nowhere to be found in the rest of the film.
Knuckleball (2018) Directed by Michael Peterson. Written by Kevin Cockle, Michael Peterson, and Jordan Scott. Starring Michael Ironside, Munro Chambers, Luca Villacis, Kathleen Munroe, and Chenier Hundal.
3 out of 10