The debut feature from writer-director Bennet De Brabandere was titled “Cherrypicker” for a while and renamed “Ankle Biters” for release. But while he cleverly-retitled this story of a hockey goon who runs afoul of his girlfriend’s four 7-and-under daughters, he never nails down the tone.
As horror, it’s slow-of-foot and blows enough basic set-ups that rob it of suspense that it at best, “almost” comes off. As a dark comedy, which certainly seems the intent, it stumbles along, never quite making light of the plight of a tough guy who never knows what hit him.
As it opens with a funeral, we have some idea of what’s coming. Seeing the dead man’s mother pour some of her son’s ashes into a hockey glove and hearing a TV reporter refer as “a bevloved party animal and jack-ass pro-hockey f–k-boy, who” establishes the tone they were going for, if never quite found.
Sean Chase, played by actor-stunt-man Zion Forrest Lee, is seen in a brutal, eye-gouging fight on the ice. But that was before the “five months earlier” flashback the film takes us on, a post-broken-neck rehab that ended his career and started his romance with the vivacious Laura (Marianthi Evans of “Max Payne” and TV’s “Defiance”).
In the boudoir, he and she like it rough. And we see them videoing their choking, taping-up sex play.
But she has four little girls. And everybody he knows — his dad, his agent — blurts out “That’s a lotta kids.”
He won’t be deterred. On a “family” summer trip to his lake cottage, he plans to give her his grandma’s ring. And he hopes to bond with the quartet of cuties that come with Laura as a package deal.
Four sisters — Rosalee Reid, Violet Reid, Lily Reid, Dahlia Reid — play the four little angels. We see the dynamics of the foursome, and catch a whiff of ringleader Rosalee’s dark side and how she runs the show.
Little Dahlia might be open to the idea of Sean being in their lives. But not Rosalee, and Lily and Violet are quick to join her.
They notice bruises on Mommy and ask her questions she dodges. And when they rummage through his luggage, they not only find his adhesive bondage-tape, they find the ring.
“If Sean puts this on her finger, it will make Sean our daddy forever!”
Rosalee and the rest aren’t keen on letting that happen.
The plot doesn’t escalate from harmless pranks to life-threatening stunts. The standard comic — dark or otherwise — way of playing this out would have Sean slowly realize what they’re doing, unable to convince Mom that they’re not little darlings after all. Instead, we’re thrown right into serious bad intent to serious injury and worse.
That “jailbait” teen (Matia Jackett) next door whom Sean’s known since forever? Will she get in the way?
Lee came up with the story for this and isn’t bad for a first-time leading man. He doesn’t make Sean into a dumb jock caricature, although that might have played as funnier.
Brabandere, to his credit, doesn’t make the girls “Home Alone” booby-trap masterminds. But Mommy’s bruises are downplayed and don’t seem to be their prime motive for going psychopath. These Daughters of the Damned are seen as afraid of spiders, but unafraid of pulling a knife on somebody or of torture.
That’s more unpleasant than entertaining. And that kind of goes for the film, too.
There’s a clever plot here with plenty of can’t-miss possibilities. Brabandere misses too many of those, and kind of hangs his “Ankle Biters” out to dry.
Rating: unrated, graphic bloody violence, sex, profanity
Cast: Zion Forrest Lee, Marianthi Evans, Rosalee Reid, Violet Reid, Lily Reid, Dahlia Reid, Matia Jackett and Colin Mochrie.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Bennet De Brabandere. A Dark Star release.
Running time: 1:31