As horror indie Don’t Knock Twice (2017) seems to prove, sometimes it just takes an unstoppably evil hag to help strengthen the bond between an estranged (and equally troubled) mother and daughter. Director Caradog James (The Machine, 2014) and screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler (Howl, 2015) develop a creepy mythos that takes on an urban-legend-bleeding-into-reality approach, but the two women at the center really are what holds the film together. Doubling as a mother-daughter reconciliation drama and a fright flick with a supernatural presence, Don’t Knock Twice wants to have it both ways — and often recalls Lights Out (2016) in both of those similar aims — but despite a shaky final third, it is an effective twofer in its own right.
Due to her long battle with addiction, American sculptor Jess (Katee Sackhoff) had to give up daughter Chloe (Lucy Boynton). Now happily married to British banker Ben (Richard Mylan), she has moved back across the pond permanently and wants to rebuild her relationship with Chloe after nine years. When Jess applies to get custody and visits her teenage daughter at a children’s home, Chloe tells her mother off and refuses to go live with her. Later that night, Chloe and her boyfriend, Danny (Jordan Bolger), visit a small, dilapidated house next to a highway where a young boy went missing. It was the former home of an alleged witch named Mary Aminov, dubbed “Ginger” for her red hair, and it is said that if one knocks on her door not once but twice, Mary’s ghost will return. After Danny mysteriously disappears and Chloe realizes she will be next, she shows up at the door of Jess and Ben’s country manor in the middle of the night. Jess might not believe her daughter at first, thinking Chloe is just acting out, until she sees old Mary in her dreams.
The characters certainly matter and so do the scares in Don’t Knock Twice, a creeping horror drama rooted in the real world but dipping its toes into a grim Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Directed by Caradog James, the film is crafted with a pall of disquiet and foreboding that’s never undone by foolish character decisions for the sake of propelling the narrative forward. Jess and Chloe are already in a tough spot before they even become preyed upon by the witchy Mary Aminov, and the script never lets them off the hook too easily. The healing journey Chloe takes with Jess under the most fantastical of circumstances still rings emotionally true, and the two actors commit to help earn the film’s emotional through-line.
Receiving her arguably juiciest lead role on screen, Katee Sackhoff is terrific as Jess, an independent but stubborn woman who has made mistakes in her past and truly wants to make things right with her daughter. Coming off her breakthrough role in Sing Street (2016), in which she came across as a charismatic dynamo, Lucy Boynton (who reminds quite a bit of a young Kate Beckinsale) is strong as the sarcastically tongued Chloe, who puts up a wall because of her abandonment issues. She’s also quite the Nancy Drew, figuring out a lot of the supernatural goings-on with the aid of black-and-white printouts of Eastern European folklore.
Don’t Knock Twice has its jump scares and, boy, does director Caradog James adeptly build up to them, making sure most, if not all, of them work. One socko jolt with Chloe standing in a doorway is timed just so that, even for a non-rookie horror viewer, falling out of your seat wouldn’t be out of the question. All of the shadowy imagery involving the demonic Mary, brought to spindly life by the tireless, physically magnificent Javier Botet, frays the nerves. Like all of Botet’s ghoulish creations, she is the stuff of nightmares, whether emerging from a sink, from behind a couch, or, well, anywhere. From a production standpoint, there is an eloquence to much of James’ filmmaking from cinematographer Adam Frisch’s striking shot compositions to the chill-inducing violin-heavy score by composers James Edward Barker (The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), 2011) and Steve Moore (The Guest, 2014), and an indelibly droning sound that acts as a harbinger of doom.
By the third act, the film does quickly grow convoluted but never less enthralling. Jess finds a flash drive that sets up a red herring, but the existence of said flash drive only makes sense after the final revelations get rolled out in the last couple of minutes. After Jess and Chloe are separated by the authorities of Chloe’s foster home, Jess gets her back, only to lose Chloe once again when a pesky someone comes a-knocking on a sidewalk trapdoor. A looking-glass trip into a forest (shot in Wales) that begins in a police interrogation room is ultimately where things conclude, and it’s there that the plotting gets back on track. There’s more to come after that with the hope to solve everything before the last frame, leaving Jess and Chloe, as well as the audience, with a whirlwind of reveals and reassessments. With that said, the picture ends on a less-than-satisfying note, striking more as a cop-out than an uncompromising conclusion. Up until then, though, Don’t Knock Twice treats its two characters with respect and gets enough creepy mileage out of knocking on Hell’s door. Director James’ craft for the ominous and scary is too good for so long that complaining about the narrative not sticking the landing seems negligible.
The film, courtesy of IFC Midnight, will be released into select theaters, iTunes, and OnDemand platforms on 3rd February 2017.