Michael Thelin’s 2015 babysitting psychological torture flick Emelie is a specially designed weapon aimed at every fear a parent ever had about leaving their kids with a stranger, but it’s more than that. For me, this movie dredged up a whole bunch of weird memories about what it’s like to to be an older sibling or an awkward pre-teen boy babysat by a gorgeous teenage girl, simultaneously infatuated and terrified. Emelie knows all about that stuff, and manipulates those feelings to unsettle and frighten you just like its baby-faced star screws with her charges. This is a movie that is at least as disturbing as it is frightening, a movie about making you squirm in your seat rather than making you jump in it.
The film takes place over the course of a single (terror-filled) night of babysitting. The sitter, portrayed with smirking excellence by Sarah Bolger, watches out for 11-year-old Jake, 7ish Lindsey, and 4-year-old Chris while their parents enjoy an anniversary dinner date. The child actors do a great job, and this movie stands out for how natural these kids seem in their interactions with the sitter, their parents, and each other, even as the sitter’s behavior goes from erratic to disturbing to worse. Although the movie does eventually get around to your more traditional violence, the sitter’s most vile attacks are of the psychological variety. By being mean to some of the children and nice to others, and showing them things children shouldn’t see, the sitter manages to provide plenty of nightmare fuel before the weapons come out in the second act.
Woven in with the story of the sitter from hell is an intriguing mystery plot about why the sitter is doing what she’s doing. It’s evident early on that the sitter is not who she claims to be, and trying to figure that out keeps the viewer engaged as the babysitting situation ramps up into a full-on horror movie. The mystery plot acts like a pressure valve for the building tension inside the house — it keeps the viewer from getting terror fatigued, and the movie from devolving into Eli Roth torture porn. The mystery plot is so intriguing, that I feel the film loses a little of its punch when the sitter’s backstory is revealed in a rush of heavy-handed exposition at the movie’s midpoint. This is also the point where the the movie moves from it’s memorable brand of psychological terror to your more common horror movie getting-chased-around-in-the-dark type of stuff. The end result is that all of this film’s most insidious and memorable scenes happen in the first hour–it’s a little frontloaded.
Even so, this is a well acted, well-written, unsettling, insidiously disturbing movie that manages to be extremely chilling with a minimum of gore and a single digit body count. Although obviously designed to terrify parents, this childless reviewer assures you that Emelie will also freak out anyone who’s ever been sitter or sittee.