I have a couple of confessions. Before watching director Michael Peterson’s KNUCKLEBALL, I didn’t know what a “knuckleball” was. I live in a country where the preferred way to hit a ball with a bat rhymes with “lick it”, so I found KNUCKLEBALL informative when it comes to baseball terminology. My other confession is that I really like Michael Ironside, and he’s the main thing about KNUCKLEBALL that piqued my interest and made me want to watch. Ever since he made heads explode in Scanners and lost a couple of limbs while chasing Arnold around Mars, I’ve seen him as an underrated Canadian export.

KNUCKLEBALL – a taut, simple thriller starring Ironside and fellow Turbo Kid alumni, Munro Chambers – is another worthy export from the icy north. The story follows young boy Henry (Luca Villacis) who is dropped off by his parents for a weekend with dear old grandpa Jacob (Ironside). They throw baseballs and work on the isolated farmhouse together, but their quality time is cut short when grandpa mysteriously passes away in his sleep. Henry rushes next door to find help from Dixon (Chambers) – a young man who had a strange friendship with Jacob. It soon becomes clear that something more sinister is happening, and Dixon tries to prevent Henry from finding out the truth about the dark family legacy, hunting him down with the intent to kill.

KNUCKLEBALL is a definite slow-burner, building its tension quietly until shifting gears around half-way through its runtime. Director Michael Peterson doesn’t hide his influences, with a number of scenes that are clear homages to the snowed-in isolation of The Shining. The atmosphere is built effectively, and the bitterly cold location helps sell the drama. The centrepiece of the film comes when Henry sets creatively deadly traps for Dixon, giving off more than a little Home Alone vibe, just with less Joe Pesci. But hey, the film has Michael Ironside, so the lack of Pesci is forgivable.

After reading KNUCKLEBALL’s synopsis, I was a little concerned that Michael wouldn’t make it more than five minutes into the film before dying, but I was pleased to be proved wrong by the sprinklings of Ironside throughout. I firmly believe that all Canadian films should have Michael Ironside in the cast by law. In the same way that California recently passed diversity laws for film industry operations within its borders, Canada needs to establish an “Ironside Inclusion Clause”.

Seriously though, the film rests on the back of child actor Luca Villacis. He lives up to his end of the bargain by giving a good, empathetic performance and avoids the pitfalls that face other actors his age – i.e., he’s not annoying! Munro Chambers – who was eminently likable in Turbo Kid – gives an unexpectedly unsettling turn as the creepy, homicidal country boy next door.

Peterson uses his actors well and plays things generally straightforward, which is kinda refreshing nowadays. Modern audiences have been trained to expect that movies like this will go off the simple path, unable to resist deconstruction or subversion of the genre. Instead, KNUCKLEBALL feels like something I might’ve rented in the 90s. As a result it’s not something that will shake the foundations of the thriller/horror genre, but it doesn’t need to. It also may be hard to convince a wider audience it’s a must see, but for the right folks, it’s absolutely worth a late-night watch. KNUCKLEBALL is a nice little cat and mouse thriller without pretension, but brims with plenty of actual tension.

KNUCKLEBALL is part of the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

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