The Other Side of the Door (2016)

The Other Side of the Door first published by Sight & Sound

Review: In The Other Side of the Door, Maria Harwood (Sarah Wayne Callies), suicidal with grief and guilt at the drowning of her young son Oliver (Logan Creron) in a car accident, takes the desperate measure – following advice from her housekeeper Piki (Suchitra Pillai-Malik) – of having the boy’s little corpse disinterred and reduced to ashes, so that she can try to raise his soul at a remote South Indian temple ruin for one last goodbye. With fairytale inevitability, Maria breaks the strict rules attached to the ritual, opening the temple door to readmit her son to the world of the living – but in a sense, merely by endeavouring to resurrect the dead, she has already transgressed the sacrosanct laws of nature. It cannot end well.

Directed and co-written by genre filmmaker Johannes Roberts (F, 2010; Storage 24, 2012), this British-Indian co-production is full of thresholds and liminal spaces – not just the temple’s barred entrance, but the the door to Oliver’s attic bedroom (the injunction on its exterior, “Keep out, Lucy”, is as blithely ignored by his sister as Piki’s instructions are pushed aside by Maria), the Mumbai seashores and riverbanks where the ashes of the dead are released, and the precinct around the Harwoods’ house which is soon to be invaded by ghosts, by mystic necromancers the Aghori, and by a monstrous chthonic gatekeeper (Javier Botet). Meanwhile Maria’s cultural alienation in her Indian surroundings – only her antiques-trading husband Michael (Jeremy Sisto) knows any Hindi – represents another barrier to be crossed, as she must embrace local ritual to address her own personal crisis.

That crisis lies at the centre of Roberts’ film, whose supernatural scenarios always remain grounded in a tangible sense of grief and loss suffered by Maria (and also, more quietly, by Michael). When Maria says, “You know I love you, right – more than life itself”, she may be speaking through a barred door to a revenant beyond, but she is also laying bare the intensity of maternal grief that has already led her to one suicide attempt, and that will underlie her final act in a climactic scene where South Asian mysticism collides with the self-sacrifice of The Exorcist (1973).

Roberts respectfully acknowledges his many inspirations. Robert Wise’s Audrey Rose (1977) is evoked by the Hindu reincarnation mythos; Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989) is summoned by the death of Lucy’s beloved pets and another ‘Indian burial ground’; and a fugitive little girl, a fixation on drowning, restorative sex and the odd flash of red all conjure that urtext of obsessive parental mourning, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). The Harwood home exteriors were all shot at Rudyard Kipling’s birthplace – portal to a long history of Anglo-Indian relations – and the film’s ongoing intertextuality with Kipling’s The Jungle Book (Oliver’s favourite book) frames the departed child as a little boy lost in a dangerous place of otherness. Though hardly original, Roberts’ film lets into its haunted spaces all manner of rich texture and well-crafted spookery. 

Synopsis: Mumbai, India. Pregnant Maria and her husband Michael decide to move permanently from America. Six years later, Maria is still grieving and guilt-ridden after rescuing herself and daughter Lucy from a car accident in which son Oliver drowned. After Maria attempts suicide, local housekeeper Piki tells her of an abandoned temple in her home village where the dead can, for one time only, be raised for a final goodbye, but warns Maria to keep Oliver on the other side of the temple door. Maria carries out the ritual, but opens the door. Back home in Mumbai, as plants and pet birds die in the house, first Lucy and then Maria become aware of the ghostly presence of Oliver. Despite their initial joy, Oliver’s spirit becomes increasingly aggressive – and other presences, both the necromantic Aghori and underworld goddess Myrtu, keep appearing with claims on Oliver. Piki warns Maria that all trace of the returned Oliver must be erased. Attempting to burn Oliver’s things, Piki is drawn to the garden pond by the spectre of her dead daughter Anushka, and drowned. When Maria tells the truth to Michael, Lucy (now possessed by Oliver) refuses to back Maria up. Thinking Maria mad, Michael locks her in the bedroom. Lucy knifes Michael. The Aghori grab Lucy, and attempt ritually to stab her. Maria takes Oliver’s spirit into herself, promising to stay with him forever, and lets the Aghori stab her instead. Maria is awakened outside the temple by Michael, who opens the door…

© Anton Bitel