Overview: When a couple head out for their anniversary celebration, their children quickly detect something menacing about their new babysitter. Dark Sky Films; 2016; 80 Minutes.
Early Excellence: First-time director Michael Thelin wastes no time earning the confidence of horror-informed viewers. The opening abduction scene immediately reveals Thelin’s well-thought approach to crafting dangerous events to the most startling and effective degree. When a movie earns comparison to Michael Haneke within two minutes of runtime, and the craftsmanship only improves from there, the experience is one that’s certain to stick around a while.
Emelie: Sarah Bolger plays the eponymous Emelie, the babysitter who shows up under an assumed identity. From the start, Thelin never tries to obscure or withhold what we should feel about her presence, but is also in no hurry to showcase the full scope of her dangerous plan and wicked potential. Bolger’s face is perfect for this opening act, her eyes at once large and curious – exuding a feigned innocence that only the audience has a reason to reject – and cunningly observant, always moving and scheming. Her smile operates with the same duality, an aesthetically shy grin rendered sly only through our understanding of the genre classification of the film that contains it. It is the sharpest tool available at Thelin’s filmmaking disposal and he yields it with cold patience, scraping the blade against the viewer’s skin as her interactions with the three children – Christopher (Thomas Bair), Sally (Carly Adams), and eventual assumed hero Jake (Joshua Rush) – move from unsettling to threatening to straight-up abusive. By the time we see the temporary caretaker force the children to sit in audience of their parents’ private film (and that means exactly what you hope it doesn’t), Bolger’s every-girl aesthetic is no longer an afterthought. She is a monster every second she is on the screen.
The Chill Effect: That’s where Emelie really separates itself. It’s one thing for a thriller to push child characters into the path of danger and hold them there for tension, but this film goes steps beyond that, holding our faces on an unwelcome screen, pinning our eyes to things we’d certainly rather not witness. In one quietly terrifying sequence, Emelie holds Christopher in her lap and reads to him a story that she’s scribbled into a notebook, one that reveals her history of having lost her own child and, in terms too subtle for the four year old to understand, her intention of kidnapping him. At this point, the camera stops fixing on and chasing Emelie, the story moves back from her and marries itself to Jake’s efforts at saving his siblings. This shift permits Emelie’s personal damage and tragedy from softening the menace of her intent and actions. Her vulnerability and sadness doesn’t dull our fear of her psychosis. It makes her feel more dangerous.
Overall: While later scenes see Emelie succumb to more basic thriller film methods, a moment of panic felt when the parents learn of the discovered dead body of the young lady they presumed to be their babysitter proves that Thelin’s deliberate and mature attention in crafting danger has captured us for the length of this chilling film experience.