Michael Peterson’s Knuckleball is a homegrown horror shot on location in Alberta. Lean and mean, the film clocks in at a short 89 minutes but never feels underdone. The script by Peterson and Kevin Cockle wastes no time in conveying the setup. We’re introduced to Henry (Luca Villacis), his mother Mary (Kathleen Munroe), and father Paul (Chenier Hund), currently en route to drop Henry off at his grandpa’s house while his parents attend the funeral of a distant relative. Icy dialogue between the parents gestures toward some deep-set familial tension, an impression further reinforced by Henry’s resigned escape into his videogame. The concept of family–and the many missteps that can radically alter or destroy it–form the linchpin of the film.
A brief moment of well-executed exposition reveals Mary’s misgivings about her father, Jacob (stalwart Canadian legend Michael Ironside), before the two adults leave Henry to get better acquainted with the old man. Henry and Jacob find common ground in their deep love of baseball. Over the course of the day, the two gradually let down their guards, and the only really sour note of the day is marked by the brief appearance of Jacob’s awkward and off-putting neighbour and farmhand, Dixon (Munro Chambers). The burgeoning friendship between the grandson and grandfather is cut short after Jacob is felled by an ill-timed heart attack. When Henry is unable to reach his parents for help (always make sure that you’ve packed your phone charger, friends), he’s forced to turn to Dixon, a young man whose emotional instability is unmistakably telegraphed by his eyes. The arrival of dusk and a devastating storm leaves Henry isolated and left to fend for himself, with only his own intellect and resourcefulness to save him.
Knuckleball plays out like a more realistic version of Home Alone – far fewer laughs and far more physical (and emotional) scarring. Munro Chambers, Degrassi alum and the title character in 2015’s Canadian post-apocalyptic sci-fi jaunt Turbo Kid is given a chance to flex his acting chops. He seizes the opportunity with relish, giving good creep as the unhinged farm hire with a back catalogue full of family secrets. Luca Villacis performs well as the terrified but resourceful Henry, and Michael Ironside hits it out of the park as Jacob (a film called Knuckleball begs for at least one baseball pun in its review, forgive me). The solidly-executed gore manages to avoid being too gratuitous or over-the-top, but will still satisfy those craving a spectacle. Hugely entertaining and no slouch in the tension department, Knuckleball is definitely a film to check out when it hits theatres later this year.
8.5 out of 10 ill-timed family visits.