More often than not, horror is about family, those who are close such as the Freelings of Poltergeist and the Lutzes of The Amityville Horror, the sorority sisters of The Initiation, the nocturnal brotherhood of The Lost Boys, the strained and struggling lone parent of The Babadook, the missing infant of The Witch, and of course the demonic offspring of Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen.
Jess and her teenage daughter Chloe have been estranged for years, Jess brought up in a children’s home as Chloe fought the demons of her addictions, but now Jess is a successful sculptor in a stable relationship who wants her daughter home where she should be. All she has to do is convince social services and Chloe herself, who understandably wants nothing to do with her mother.
Angry and resentful at her abandonment, Chloe’s friend Danny tries to distract her by reminding her of the stories they used tell each other about Mary Aminov, “the witch” who they thought was responsible for another resident in the home going missing. Teasing Chloe as they pass the derelict house, the last one standing in a row now knocked down, he tells her that “Because Mary’s dead there’s no one left to feed the demon. They reckon it’s still trapped in there, waiting for someone to knock.”
Lifting the cast iron goat head knocker, heavy and echoing, Danny dares Chloe to complete the command and she complies: “Once to wake her from her bed, twice to raise her from the dead.” But when Danny vanishes that night the panicked Chloe is soon knocking on Jess’ door after all, seeking safety from the spindly black shape which follows her.
Directed by The Machine’s Caradog W James and written by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, Don’t Knock Twice is neither as lively nor as entertaining as their script for Howl, the flat and functional dialogue doing no favours for the cast with Miss Potter‘s Lucy Boynton in particular underperforming to the point of indifference as Chloe, the other characters never feeling tied to the curse of the spurious plot by anything other than happenstance.
Often the best thing in a film, Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff is asked to do little more than her trademark intensity, throwing herself into her art to the exclusion of all else, acting without thinking and challenging the bureaucracy of social services and the smug Detective Boardman (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ Nick Moran) who is investigating Danny’s disappearance with as much success as the earlier cases.
The only person Jess is comfortable with is the one who makes no demands of her and who can easily be handed back, the baby of the model who poses for her current “Madonna and child” sculpture. Efficiently, Tira (The Machine‘s Pooneh Hajimohammadi) doubles as the herald of doom; while Chloe’s research has led her to believe Mary Aminov was the human slave of Baba Yaga (“She opens a doorway between hell and the world of men so she can devour the innocent”), Tira believes otherwise.
Trying to put a traditional folk tale in a modern horror context, Don’t Knock Twice can only be as effective as the relationship between Sackhoff and her “daughter” Boynton is convincing, and with only thirteen years between them that is not very much. Unlike The Badabook where the personality disorders of mother and son triggered and amplified each other, here only lip service is given to how Chloe’s problems may stem from Jess and how much they may be alike.
Lacking in atmosphere and littered with an overwhelming profusion of amateur jump scares there are a handful of effective moments, Jess and Chloe sheltering from the rain by the makeshift bonfire, the twisting tracking shot through the neon lit corridor of Danny’s block, each light strip terminating as the camera passes, but revealing the supposed scares before establishing the characters it never becomes as creepy or involving as it should.
With garish red light less effective in the communal kitchen of a British children’s home than an Italian ballet school James tries too hard to appeal to a wide commercial audience when a stronger script and an off-kilter approach befitting the traditional roots would have made for something more interesting and unique where the narrative shortcomings might at least have been overshadowed.
Don’t Knock Twice is in cinemas and on demand 31st March and on DVD 3rd April