Don’t Knock Twice FILM REVIEW
Horror, done right, is one of the most powerful genres in fiction. It can walk us right up to the edge of our tolerances and then push us over the edge. When that works, it shows us just how tough we are; it gives us hope in the middle of the blood and gore of someone else’s thankfully fictional nightmare. When it doesn’t work, you get a jump scare every 10 minutes and constant reminders of the artificiality of the story you’re watching.
In other words, horror done right is hopeful, ambitious and scary. Horror done wrong is mean-spirited, mechanical and boring.
Don’t Knock Twice is horror done very right. In fact, if there’s a criticism to level at the movie it’s that it tries to do too much. And in a genre that’s crumpled under the weight of the “…OR IS IT?!” ending for decades, that’s a huge relief.
Behind the camera on this one are Caradog W James in the director’s chair and Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler on scriptwriting duties. James is best known for the criminally under-seen The Machine, starring Legends Of Tomorrow’s Caity Lotz. Marketed as a “female terminator kicks face!” movie it’s, well, partially that, but also a remarkably successful big screen discussion of digital life and what happens when we create it.
Huckerby and Ostler are best known as children’s TV writers, with their most recent credits including the new season of Dangermouse. Gosh.
Together, the three manage to take what’s a fairly standard horror story and do several very unexpected things with it. The film centres on Chloe played by Lucy Boynton. She’s the daughter of a successful American artist, Jess, played by Katee Sackhoff. Jess’s sculptures are massively successful but her past is littered with debris. Along the way, she put Jess in a home. Now, with Jess reaching the top of adolescence, she’s attempting to reconnect. It isn’t going well.
Then, Jess and not-quite-boyfriend Danny visit Ginger’s house. A lone, boarded-up house in the middle of waste ground near a motorway, it’s supposed to house a demon. Knock twice, and the demon comes for you. It’s not new ground for them so neither think much of it when they both knock twice.
That night, Danny disappears. And something starts knocking, one two, one two, at every door in Chloe building.
She flees to the country, and Jess’s house.
So far, so standard,we’ll grant you. But there are three things that lift this high above the standard horror fare. The first and most important one: no one’s an idiot. Chloe tells Jess what’s going on about a reel and a half faster than most horror movies. Jess doesn’t believe her for absolutely rock solid reasons. Those reasons are shattered into a million tiny hell-spawned pieces and the two women are on the same page. There’s no scepticism, no Scully-esque refusal to believe in face-eating demons even as one is eating your actual face. Just two people, in an impossible situation, trying to fix it.
That leads to the second big thing the film has going for it: its central performances. Boynton’s surly, angry Chloe is never stereotypical or one-note. This is a kid frightened and traumatised a dozen different ways and Boynton nails the careful, aware stillness of a perennial survivor very well. Even better, Chloe doesn’t let Jess off the hook for her past for most of the film and it’s clear the movie has two lines of conflict for its leads; beating the witch and trying to find common ground with each other. Neither feels unearned and a huge part of that is down to Boynton’s understated and clever central performance.
Much of the rest is down to Sackhoff’s equally impressive work. She’s quietly developed a real horror pedigree in recent years and was a major part of why the brilliant Oculus worked so well. Here she’s even better, giving Jess a studious intensity and awkwardness around her daughter that feels painfully honest and real. Jess is a problem solver, a woman who has fixed herself and now finds even more work to do. She goes about it with the terrified pragmatism of genre cinema’s great heroines and Sackhoff shows us every step, and just what it costs her.
Elsewhere in the miniscule cast, Nick Moran does excellent work as a police officer who knows Chloe of old. Moran has one of the hardest jobs here, projecting menace without tipping into full over villainy and he absolutely nails it. Pooneh Hajimohammadi, also impressive in The Machine, does great work here too as Jess’s model of choice. These four performances anchor the movie and give it a realistic, complex emotional weight even as events spiral further and further out of control.
And it’s those events that really are a joy for horror fans. The premise is set up early on in a way that’s easy to follow but has a couple of apparent holes. Those holes are filled, every single one, as the movie continues and Jess learns more. James, Ostler and Huckerby trust the audience to keep up and at the moments where your eyebrows raise, be assured reasons for what’s going on are on the way.
Even better, this is a film shot through with glorious supernatural logic. Jess’s first attempt to deal with the problem makes perfect sense. Her second leads to one of the most chilling, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments since Oculus. By the time she’s headed for Ginger’s house, you get a sense of a woman pushed far past the edge and desperate to do something, anything to save her daughter. That leads to answers about Chloe’s past and a visual payoff to the film’s subtle uses of shadow and noise that leaves it with a single, terrifying image straight out of the best and bloodiest fairy tale.
That’s where the movie really shines; in the constant ways that it subverts Chloe and Jess’ reality. The image of Ginger’s terrible house echoes as loud as the door knocker, up and down the movie. The sense of creeping dread, the fact that Jess’s remarkably sensible approaches does little and the final payoff all give this a feeling that sits somewhere between Mike Flanagan movies and classic Hammer. This is big, chewy horror and it succeeds in almost every way. Even the areas where it fails are interesting, with the male characters under written and one twist in particular playing a little oddly on first viewing.
However, the more you think about it the more you realise Don’t Knock Twice is something special. A defiantly modern, and cheerfully Welsh, horror story that puts its female characters front and centre and gives them a chance to shine.
Review by Alasdair Stuart