Described by Johannes Roberts as “a love letter to Stephen King” at the UK premiere screening at Glasgow Film Festival’s Fright Fest weekend, though he later clarified that he has never seen Pet Sematary with which it shares many similarities, it is the writer/director’s ninth feature in fifteen years but his first major studio project, released through 20th Century Fox and produced by Horns‘ Alexandre Aja, though remaining within the horror genre with which he is familiar.
Opening in the busy streets of modern Mumbai, the crowds, the colours, the smells, Maria (The Walking Dead‘s Sarah Wayne Callies) picks at her food before telling her husband Michael (Six Feet Under‘s Jeremy Sisto) that she is pregnant. They walk on the beach, they plan for the future, possibly relocating their antiques business to India to allow them to stay in that place which brings them so much happiness.
Then Maria wakes up screaming. It is six years after that happy memory, and their son Oliver is dead. Maria was driving the car when it was involved in a collision, knocked off the bridge into the river below. She was able to get her daughter Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky) to the shore but the people who rushed to her aid stopped her from returning to the submerged vehicle for her son.
“I’m lost, Michael,” she says, but this is a studio picture, so it’s Hollywood grief which consists of sitting with perfect hair and makeup in her vast and beautiful home full of tastefully ethnic furniture while watching old home movies while the housekeeper gives Lucy more attention than she does.
Following an overdose attempt, Piki (Suchitra Pillai-Malik) is forced to intervene, telling Maria that she too lost a child, her daughter, but that she was able to find peace by saying a final goodbye by performing a ritual at a remote temple in Southern India. “It is said the line between the living and the dead is very thin in this place.”
Scattering the ashes of her son on the steps, Maria must then lock herself inside the temple. “When Oliver comes to the door you will be able to speak to him. You must not open the door.” Inevitably, even with only one unambiguous command which must not be violated, Maria needs more and is compelled to disobey.
The inescapable reality of both Roberts’ script and Callies’ performance is that for a horror film to be effective there must be sympathy with the characters, and from beginning to end Maria comes across as an unlikeable, ignorant bitch. Yes, she has lost a child, and it is terrible and tragic, and the flashback to that traumatic moment is perhaps the only effective scene in the film, but she is not seen to be grieving so much as feeling sorry for herself.
There is no indication that she has sought any counselling or taken any medication or even spoken to her husband or any of her friends (assuming she has any; the film is notably bereft of supporting characters), and her attempted overdose is the height of selfishness, had it been successful leaving Lucy dealing with the loss of her brother and her mother.
Maria is also deeply credulous as only a character in a poorly constructed horror film can be, arranging the exhumation of the body of her dead son on the strength of nothing more than a fairy story, setting it atop a pyre then setting off across the continent without even telling her family where she is going; quite how exhumation and cremation are performed without attracting the attention of the law or her husband is never addressed.
It is of course possible that Michael is just simply not interested; entirely peripheral to the narrative (why should he be important, he’s only the husband and father of the children), his few lines are confined to reactionary platitudes and enquiries without substance, managing to avoid saying anything significant for the entire film. It’s also possible his real business is what is distracting him, for although there is no indication it’s a cover for a drug operation certainly the antiques business isn’t paying for that house, the servant, the expensive cars and the overseas trips.
Like Callies’ character Lori Grimes on The Walking Dead, everything which happens to Maria and her family was brought on by her. Having broken the one inviolable rule which must not be broken (please, nobody give this woman a Mogwai), the spirit of her dead son returns to the house, haunting her and bullying Lucy (Michael remaining splendidly ignorant), allowing her to demonstrate poor parenting skills by first negotiating with her unruly dead child and then capitulating to him before even obtaining a promise that he must not hurt his sister if he is to have stories read to him.
A horror which fails to horrify, a drama which fails to engage, The Other Side of the Door does not even have the saving grace to be so bad it is funny or offer spectacular visuals, despite being filmed on location. In fact, the only remarkable thing is Maria’s ability with a single handwash to reclaim the stuffed tiger toy she rescued from inside Oliver’s coffin; she may ignore the wisdom of the ancients, but she’s a dab hand in the kitchen because for most mortals it would need at least a boil wash to stop it stinking out the house with the reek of dead baby forever more.
The Other Side of the Door is on general release from Friday 4th March