Few things terrify parents more than the idea of leaving their children alone with a complete stranger, yet that is the situation many find themselves in when seeking a babysitter. Some might say it’s necessary risk that allows parents a brief opportunity to feel like their old selves, offering momentary freedom from the task of ensuring their offspring grow into successful people, but Michael Thelin’s Emelie might change your mind.
Set somewhere in suburbia, Emelie finds the Thompson family welcoming a girl they’ve never met into their home so that the mother and father can have their first night out together in quite some time. The girl (Sarah Bolger)—who calls herself “Anna,” but whose real name is Emelie—is a seemingly average teen with a charming enough demeanor and a smile as wide as a country mile. She assures the Thompsons that everyone will be well taken care of and that all house rules will be followed, but shortly after she is left alone with the family’s three children, things begin to take a turn for the unusual. Unlike most babysitters, Anna is loose on rules and language. She swears, cuts down the children (as well as their parents), rummages through drawers and watches porn in the living room. She even asks the oldest child, Jacob (played extremely well by Joshua Rush), to help her retrieve a tampon while seated on a toilet. Jacob knows this is not how a night away from Mom and Dad would typically go, but he also doesn’t know how to respond. No one does.
As the night carries on and Anna’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, an ulterior motive for her presence in the Thompsons’ life begins to reveal itself. The younger children, Sally (Carly Adams) and Christopher (Thomas Bair), cannot see the evil present in their home, but Jacob can. The only problem is, he has nowhere to turn. Every adult—including Mom and Dad—are fooled by Anna’s deceptively kind personality. His only option is to take matters into his own hands a la Home Alone, but unlike the sticky bandits Anna, or Emelie, is not going down without a fight.
Thelin splits the bulk of Emelie’s runtime between Anna’s time with the children and the Thompsons’ night out. Where Anna’s exploits are captured up close and personal, the Thompsons—Dan (Chris Beetem) and Joyce (Susan Pourfar)—are often watched from a distance. We see them eating at a fancy dinner through a window, or from the exterior of their car. The reasoning for this revealed over the course of the story, but suffice to say everything is eventually connected. Thelin is careful to not give away too much in any one scene, often leaving the biggest twists for the final act and offering several alternative theories to Anna’s motivation along the way, but those familiar with this particular subgenre of horror may be able to piece the puzzle together fairly early on.
When Emelie is at its best, it plays like a nightmarish take on The Cat In The Hat, with Anna/Emelie serving as the nefarious lead, but despite strong performances across the board giving the story impressive believability, the film struggles to remain fraught with tension. The mystery created with the opening scene, which finds the real Anna being kidnapped in broad daylight, sets a bar for the film that it only manages to hit one or two more times before the credits roll. Whether or not that is enough to keep viewers engaged will likely vary greatly from person to person, but when those moments do occur both Thelin’s eye for direction and Bolger’s performance shine as bright as any element of any great horror film.
Stranger danger is alive and well in 2016, and Emelie is here to make you question everyone you meet. I doubt many will remember the bulk of the story in even six months’ time, but Emelie has several sequences that are sure to unnerve anyone with kids, as well as anyone considering starting a family in the near future. It’s essentially a film made out of everything that keeps most adults up at night, and it’s delivered in such a way that it often feels almost too real. As the events unfold you can feel yourself growing increasingly uncomfortable in your own seat, and when the final frames play out you’re left picking your jaw off the floor. This is the kind of movie that will instill irrational fears in mothers and fathers for generations to come.