Deep in the great Canadian North, no one can hear you scream. You can either fight whatever wishes to kill you, or let it paint the snow with your blood. Knuckleball follows a young boy left behind in unfamiliar territory, with no one to protect him from a murderous psychopath.

Henry (Luca Villacis) is dropped off at his grandfather Jacob’s (Michael Ironside) farm-house in a remote area in the Canadian countryside. His parents, Mary and Paul (Kathleen Munroe and Chenier Hundal), are off to a cousin’s funeral in another city and felt it was best not to bring along Henry. It’s strange then that Mary agreed to leave her son with her father, since his property brings back bad memories from her childhood; her mother hung herself in the barn after finding out that Jacob was having an affair.

Upon seeing Henry, his grandfather Jacob exclaims “You said you were dropping off a boy, all I see is a full-grown working man.” He puts Henry to work, shoveling manure and fetching wood. Although Henry initially complains, he demonstrates that he is quite resourceful and self-sufficient. From the beginning, his grandfather appears rough around the edges (like any other Michael Ironside character), but he exposes his soft-side when he sees Henry killing time throwing snowballs. He brings out a duffel bag full of baseballs and shows Henry how to properly pitch. Henry learns the different ways to hold a baseball, including the knuckleball (hence, the name of the film).

 

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While doing chores, Henry meets Dixon (Munro Chambers), the young man who lives in the house on the other side of the woods. Something about Dixon seems off. He says he occasionally helps Jacob with work around the farm, but their relationship seems a bit more complex when Henry catches his grandpa telling Dixon off and smacking him upside the head.

Henry foolishly runs out the battery on his cellphone playing mobile games all night. When he realizes that he didn’t pack a charger, he goes to wake up his grandfather to ask if they can drive into town. But Jacob won’t wake up. His skin is cold and his face has turned blue. Henry desperately tries to call his parents, but is only able to leave a voicemail before his cellphone dies.

Henry runs to Dixon’s house, who has the only other phone for miles around. Unfortunately, Dixon claims that the phone lines are out due to the incoming snowstorm. He offers Henry food in an attempt to cheer him up. But when Henry sees Dixon drop a pill in his soda, he knows he is in danger. He escapes back to his grandfather’s house, pursued by a psychotic Dixon. In order to survive, Henry puts his scout training into practice and sets up a series of Home Alone-esque traps around the house. But this is no slapstick comic situation, it’s a matter of kill or be killed.

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Every few years, a movie comes along that shakes me to my core. Fantastical monsters like zombies and evil clowns don’t have any effect on me. It’s the cruelty and malevolence of individual humans that truly scares me. The setting of Knuckleball is realistic, and therefore, engages me more. Also, who would ever want any harm to come to an innocent 12-year old boy? The film’s score doubles the tension of an already nail-biting scenario.

Munro Chambers (who previously played opposite to Ironside in Turbo Kid) is absolutely chilling as the villain Dixon. His embodiment of a mentally disturbed man proves he come a long way since his days on Degrassi. At first I was disappointed when Ironside’s character died off so early in the movie, since he was the reason I chose to see Knuckleball. However, he continues to make appearances throughout the film in Dixon’s delusions, egging him on to kill.

 

“[It’s] kill or be killed.”

 

According to the Fantasia staff, Knuckleball was the first film officially selected for the 2018 edition of the festival. In 2012, director Michael Peterson screened his debut film Lloyd the Conqueror at Fantasia. But the tone of Knuckeball is immensely different from Peterson’s LARP comedy. To quote Peterson before the screening, “This movie is in no way funny. And if any of it makes you laugh, there is something seriously wrong with you.” And he was right. The crowd was dead silent throughout the screening, quite unusual for a Fantasia audience. As the ending credits rolled, I looked around to see a room full of wide-eyed pale faces, a few letting out a bewildered “Jesus Christ” under their breath.

3.5 / 4 eberts

 

Knuckleball made its Quebec premiere at the 22nd edition of the Fantasia Film Festival.

Check out more of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantasia Fest Coverage here, and be sure to sound off with your thoughts over on Twitter and in our Facebook Group!

 

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