When it lets itself get weird, Greta becomes the campy thriller it wants to be

Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz | Focus Features

Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz | Focus Features

The stalker from hell premise is one with a long and storied history on film. From a slew of 80s slashers to countless erotic thrillers trying to cash in on the cultural tidal wave brought about by Fatal Attraction, the wide appeal of exploring one of our worst domestic nightmares has cemented tales of obsession as an easy sell for studios, letting them adapt the idea over and over until it became the most predictable story foundation in the industry. At first glance, Greta is yet another familiar cog in that machine, the story of an older woman who terrorizes a young and naive girl through increasingly aggressive acts of harassment. Upon a closer look however, it seems that’s something special bubbling underneath this seemingly cliche premise, with Hollywood journeyman Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire) behind the camera and one of our finest living actresses in Isaballe Huppert (Elle) taking on the titular stalker role. That collaboration alone suggests Greta has a few tricks up its sleeve, and luckily that turns out to be the case when the film lets loose after a slow build-up, turning a very conventional framework into a campy thrill ride.

Armed with a premise straight out of the budget DVD bin, the film kicks off with the saintly Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass) finding an abandoned purse on the subway and returning it to Greta (Huppert), a lonely and forlorn widower who quickly draws Frances’s sympathies. Frances has demons of her own, tortured by the loss of her mother a year earlier and eager to find someone who understands her pain. As the two grow closer, Frances discovers the purse that brought them together is one of many, part of an elaborate ruse that brings strangers knocking on Greta’s door. She cuts off contact with her, but quickly Frances realizes Greta’s intentions are far more sinister than she initially feared.

The allure of the film obviously comes from the two leads squaring off, and it dutifully walks you through their mounting tensions with almost no surprises. It feels better than most tepid attempts at the stalker story largely because Huppert is stellar as always as the manipulative, intense Greta, turning her one-note character into an abusive matriarch obsessed with control through parenting. It’s an odd role for Huppert, something that seems a bit beneath her talents at first, but as the film progresses and she’s allowed to peel back the layers of the character it’s clear that she’s reveling in the absurdity. Moretz, on the other hand, is given less interesting things to do and subsequently struggles under the weight of some obscenely bad lines. She plays the build-up of her character’s terror well, but most of the more interesting character beats you would expect her to have are absent or given or to Maika Monroe (It Follows), her solid if underused co-star who plays Frances’s roommate Erica.

As the film chugs through its cliched first two acts, it would appear that the film is an abject dud, a failed exercise in the belief that casting alone can elevate a tired script. Then, a shocking moment sends the movie into overdrive, amping up the campiness and letting the film tap into the schlock it so clearly wants to play around with. The turn transforms the film into something special, a gonzo collection of increasingly wild set-pieces that pay homage to the films that inspire Jordan and Ray Wright’s script while intelligently subverting their tropes. Huppert is at her best in this climatic series of events, waltzing through the blood with such a chilling gravitas that you worry she’s playing herself.

Greta may go down as a relatively unremarkable piece of genre filmmaking, a quietly released bit of corny fun drowned out by already stacked list of superior releases. But to dismiss this film as just mindless popcorn fare would be to miss out on a thrilling finale that’s more than worth the sometimes eyeroll inducing build-up. If you can get through Huppert croaking out hammy lessons on the hardships of motherhood and Moretz reacting with equally bad looks of horror, you’ll find something wild enough to earn the price of your ticket.

B-

Ryan Ninesling