Sarah Bolger and Thomas Bair in Emelie (Dark Sky Films)

Sarah Bolger and Thomas Bair in Emelie (Dark Sky Films)

Emelie preys on our nightmares and so has more in common with thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby than current pulpy horror flicks. While it may not quite be the stuff classics are made of, it is entertaining, disturbing grown-up fare.

The first scare comes from an abduction in broad daylight on a leafy suburban street. Shot from far away, the scene has the same matter-of-fact quality that made David Fincher’s Zodiac so unnerving. No explanation is initially given to this episode; it’s as if director Michael Thelin merely wants to establish a world where violence is ubiquitous, or inescapable.

Soon we meet Anna (Sarah Bolger), chosen by two parents (Susan Pourfar and Chris Beetem) as the last-minute replacement babysitter while they go out to celebrate their anniversary. Bolger gives a fine performance, giving subtextual clues that something is not right with this young woman while keeping them subtle enough to convincingly elude detection. A moment where she asks if the three children have their own cell phones, for example, has just the right dash of creepiness.

All of the actors skillfully avoid camp, even when delivering lines that cry out for it: “Don’t you wanna find me?” Anna asks the oldest boy, 11-year-old Jacob (Joshua Rush), before a game of hide-and-seek. “Wanna help me feed my python?” is his subsequent suggestion. (Oh, oh.)

And feed him they do. Anna leads the children through the typical activities of a babysitting, albeit with a twist to each of them. Other parts of the night, like the one involving a tampon or the choice of film for movie time, are of her own unique invention.

All the while, she’s cleverly pits the children against each other. Sally (Carly Adams) receives the brunt of the mistreatment, while cute little Christopher (Thomas Bair) becomes the favorite. Thelin deserves credit for the lifelike performances from these young actors, and it goes down to the details: when Jacob and Christopher have a brotherly spat, it’s completely believable.

After a while, the cruelty to these innocent children threatens to become too dark, but the writers (Richard Raymond and Rich Herbeck) find the right time to trigger Jacob’s latent heroism. There are moments of incredible tension as he tries to save the lives of his siblings. Meanwhile, mom and dad find themselves in a dangerous situation of their own.

Anna has a backstory, of course, which explains her wicked behavior, but in a film full of pregnant pauses, the requisite monologue is almost a letdown. Emelie’s scares are strongest when they’re coming from what’s hidden, and from what’s left unsaid.

Directed by Michael Thelin
Written by Richard Raymond and Rich Herbeck
Released by Dark Sky Films
USA. 80 min. Not rated
With Sarah Bolger, Joshua Rush, Carly Adams, Thomas Bair, Susan Pourfar, and Chris Beetem