The age-old horror standard of the ‘bad babysitter’ gets a seriously impressive overhaul in Emelie, a deeply claustrophobic and remarkably uncomfortable thriller from feature-debut director Michael Thelin. A powerful and unsettling piece of work, it builds up enough goodwill in its superb first hour to prevent its late descent into trash-thriller silliness from derailing proceedings too much.
Following a no-show from their usual babysitter, a married couple keen for an evening out manage to find a last-minute replacement in Emelie (a note-perfect Sarah Bolger). She arrives and we’re properly introduced to the couple and their seemingly idyllic existence. Living in their large suburban home with three charming children (a frankly outstanding set of child actors, most notably Thomas Bair as youngest son Christopher), the film’s first twenty minutes or so have a friendly, if slightly uneasy tone. Bolger’s gear-shift from innocence to something altogether more sinister is first hinted at in the most understated of ways – a barely noticeable eye-roll from Emelie as the couple go over the house rules before they leave.
What follows is an unsettling chain of events as Emelie subjects the children to a torrent of escalating nastiness, beginning with small, inappropriate indiscretions and spiralling out of control from there. It’s when this part of the film hits its stride that the strong first-act character development really works in its favour – you’ve connected with the children more than you may have expected, and are genuinely invested in their fate. Taking place almost entirely inside the family home, Emelie gives both its characters and its audience very little room to breathe, and while I won’t expand on the specifics of Emelie’s campaign of terror, it’s bound to cause a few people to look away, without ever being gratuitous in terms of violence.
As the film reaches its climax and Emelie’s motives become apparent, the film’s momentum starts to falter. Flying off the dramatic deep end with a (relatively) elaborate set-piece involving the family car and a faintly preposterous hunt-and-chase sequence, it’s Emelie‘s need to fashion itself into some semblance of an ending that it ultimately doesn’t deliver on. That being said, the film’s first hour is oustanding – proficient in its unfolding as a lean, punchy exercise in simmering tension. You’ll forgive its shortcomings in the face of its many strengths: Emelie is one of the best thrillers you’re likely to see this year.