Don’t Knock Twice (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, April 2017

Review: “How did it happen?” asks an anguished, uncomprehending Jess (Katee Sackhof). “How does something like that happen?”

In Don’t Knock Twice, the third feature of Welsh director Caradog W. James (after race comedy Little White Lies, 2006 and cyber SF The Machine, 2013), Jess’s questions refer to a parent’s most unimaginable fear: the disappearance of a child. Nowadays Jess is a successful artist, married to banker Ben (Richard Mylan) and living in a palatial estate – but nine years earlier she was so messed up on drugs and alcohol that she had to abandon her young daughter Chloe to child services. To Jess’ immense joy, adolescent Chloe (Lucy Boynton) has just returned – but the teen is full of stories of a ghostly, child-snatching witch who has just taken her friend Danny (Jordan Bolger) and is now coming for her.

Into this psychologically fraught environment, as Jess guiltily struggles to renegotiate her damaged relationship with a daughter she barely knows, there is a certain ambiguity as to whether the demonic witch figure (played variously by Pascale Wilson, Javier Botet and Ania Marson) that keeps surfacing from the shadows is truly an otherworldy entity, or a reemergence of Jess’ own dark side as the one-time mother from hell. Both, after all, carry knives around, and vie for possession of Chloe with the same words written in blood (“She’s mine”). Chloe comes knocking (twice) to Jess’ door as much as to the witch’s, and at one point she even sees the creature as Jess’ reflection in the mirror.

Like Andy Muschietti’s MAMA (2013) – which also boasted the balletic contortions of ‘movement expert’ Botet – and Johannes Roberts’ The Other Side of the Door (2016), James’ film takes the themes of maternity, abandonment, loss and guilt for a monstrous genre spin, twisting and turning its plot on hinges belonging to both psychological and supernatural frames. For, as its very title suggests, this is a duplicitous narrative whose double entries open doors to domestic dysfunction as much as diabolical intrusion. There is enjoyable interplay between Sackhof and Boynton – together sporting an impressive array of T-shirts that confirm their characters’ shared rebellious nature – but in order to accommodate the story’s convoluted equivocations, other rôles are stretched beyond all credulity. As Detective Boardman, Nick Moran must play a good cop/bad cop routine in his every on-screen appearance, while Tira (Pooneh Hajimohammadi) – all at once maternal model for Jess’ Madonna-and-child sculpture and font of endless unreliable exposition on the occult – forms the pivot of the plot’s machinery, but also delivers the film’s most ridiculous lines, without once striking home as a believable character. This is more an issue of writing than performance – although in fairness, the screenplay of Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler (Howl, 2015) does in the end manage, with ingenuity matching its shrillness, to tie together a lot of loose-seeming threads. The best thing about this broadly derivative chiller is cinematographer Adam Frisch’s masterful use of very dark spaces within the shot – beyond that, you might prefer to go knocking elsewhere.

Synopsis: Successful sculptor Jess longs for her teen daughter Chloe to move into her palatial home – but Chloe, abandoned nine years earlier by a then drug-addicted Jess, is unwilling. Sculpting model Tira gives Jess a charm. Chloe and her friend Danny knock twice on an ruined building’s door, testing a local legend that this will summon the child-snatching witch within. When Danny disappears, Chloe turns up, terrified, on Jess’ doorstep. Jess dreams vividly of an old woman slashing her own throat. Chloe reveals that the old woman is Mary Animov, aka ‘Ginger’, believed to have snatched local boy Michael Flower and others before her house burned down – and now coming from beyond the grave for Chloe. Researching online, Chloe learns that the demon Baba Yaga devours innocents, and human servants (like Mary), marked with a sigil, can only escape its control via suicide. Tira scorns this theory. Chloe and Jess come under supernatural attack. Jess destroys her house’s doors, but Chloe is snatched down a street trapdoor. Jess finds a police file and further evidence implicating Detective Boardman in the abductions of local children. Jess knocks twice at Mary’s door, and lures Boardman after her into a dark world beyond. Jess rescues Chloe, and the demon takes Boardman. Tira (who planted the video) reveals that Boardman was innocent, that she herself is the demon’s servant, and that now, thanks to the charm, Jess is marked as a servant.

© Anton Bitel