It’s highly unlikely that the modest horror picture Emelie will become a cult film, but if it does, it’ll be because of one scene. Early in the movie, a middle-class suburban family’s new babysitter—who calls herself “Anna,” but whose real name is Emelie—is sitting on the toilet when the 11-year-old Jacob walks in on her. Before he can back away, she smiles coyly at him, mentions that she’s having her period, and asks him to find one of his mom’s tampons for her. She’s flattering Jacob just a little, by treating him like a grown-up. But she’s also trying to make him uncomfortable, by suggesting that he knows more about sex than his mother and father have told him. The whole moment comes and goes in under three minutes, but while it’s happening, it’s unsettling in the way the best genre films so often are.
The rest of Emelie doesn’t live up to its peaks, through no fault of star Sarah Bolger, who makes a memorable villain. The Irish actress (best-known for the TV series The Tudors and Once Upon A Time) gives a smartly low-key performance as Emelie, a woman who has a mysterious ulterior motive for tormenting Jacob (played by Joshua Rush) and his younger siblings Sally and Christopher. In the opening sequence—well-staged by director Michal Thelin—Emelie distracts and kidnaps the real Anna, which allows her to walk right into an unsuspecting family’s life. Rich Herbeck’s script pokes at the anxieties of parents who leave their kids alone with virtual strangers, while Bolger excels at playing the nightmare version of a babysitter: seemingly sweet, cool, and capable, but secretly evil.
Thelin and Herbeck divide the action in Emelie between “date night”—where anniversary couple Dan and Joyce Thompson tries to put some romance into their sputtering marriage—and what’s going on back at their house. The film’s strongest stretch is a half-hour in the middle that like’s a twisted version of The Cat In The Hat, with Emelie encouraging the children to trash their rooms and to eat as many cookies as they want. Initially, the sullen Jacob enjoys being given free reign to rebel. But after the bathroom scene, he’s increasingly suspicious. Jacob finally turns against Emelie for good when she offers to show the kids “a movie” that turns out to be a sex tape, made by their parents.
Once the relationship between babysitter and babysat becomes adversarial, Emelie’s weaknesses become more glaring. None of the characters are all that fleshed-out, which makes them little more than action figures when the real battle begins. And while the film’s tightly paced, only occasionally does Thelin choreograph a scene as stylish and scary as Anna’s abduction in the opening minutes. The tensest moment in the back half of the movie involves an unexpected visitor, but even that sequence ends quickly, and doesn’t have the daring of some of what Emelie attempts early on. Instead, the story devolves into a generic “resourceful youngster versus home invader” picture, with some late-in-the-game backstory that feels tacked-on.
But really, that’s only disappointing because for a time Thelin and Herbeck seem to be onto something more. When the Thompsons are out at dinner discussing Jacob’s porn-filled browser history, while back at home Emelie’s exploiting the boy’s prurient interests, it almost seems like the film’s trying out an unusually provocative metaphor, letting a libertine babysitter represent the hormonal overload of adolescence. Emelie backs away from that idea too quickly, but for a while at least, it pushes buttons.