With its UK premiere at Edinburgh’s Dead by Dawn Horror Film Festival, following hot on the heels of its world premiere at San Jose’s Cineworld Film and VR Festival only weeks before, festival director Adèle Hartley introduced the Scottish screening of Knuckleball by saying it was the first film she had booked for the event and promised the audience “tons of fun” in a film that was “predatory and surprising.”
Directed by Michael Peterson, himself a guest of the festival, from a script co-written with Kevin Cockle, Knuckleball was filmed near Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, sparse trees pushing through the dirty blanket of snow as Henry’s parents drive across the empty prairies of north west Canada.
The long straight road to the horizon meeting the bleak grey sky even as the radio forecasts another storms coming in, Henry has the headphones on so he doesn’t have to listen to his parents bickering as mom spills her Xanax across the dashboard, but they’re only dropping him off on their way to the airport, thinking that Henry will have more fun with grampa Jacob than at the funeral… though not by much.
From shifting manure to finding a frozen dead dog who can’t be buried until the ground thaws sufficiently, just because he’s a kid doesn’t mean that Jacob won’t put Henry to work, and nor is gramps keen for Henry to hang out with someone at least closer to his own age.
Neighbour Dixon getting a cuff around the ear when he offers to show Henry around, Jacob isn’t an easy man to please and nor is he close to what remains of his family, a brief moment of warmth as he helps his grandson improve his baseball throwing followed by a swift put down, but as the night comes and the storm closes things get really cold in the house.
Peterson having met Michael Ironside over ten years before when living in Los Angeles, he waited until he had written “the perfect role” with him in mind before calling to ask him to play Jacob, a man who obviously loves his family but doesn’t know how to express it, who down the years has become as barbed and rough as the wire fences and wooden posts around his property.
Only twelve years old at the time of filming, it is Luca Villacis upon whom the film rests, vulnerable and isolated but resourceful even when terrified, unable to contact his parents and caught in a frosty wilderness in the company of a somewhat strange stranger, Dixon of the red-rimmed eyes and brown teeth, Munro Chambers a threatening presence far from the whimsical title role of Turbo Kid.
A sinister slow-burn mashup of Home Alone and The Shining, there are perhaps insufficient twists in Knuckleball and the scenes with Henry’s mom and dad are out of place, the film undoubtedly stronger without the back and forth which interrupts the building tension on the farm, but there is still an effective menace in the directness of that simplicity, a low-budget homestead horror of hot tempers and cold memories.
Knuckleball is currently playing the festival circuit