Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Caradog James
Writer: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Producer: Clair Moorsom, John Giwa-Amu
Stars: Katee Sackhoff, Lucy Boynton, Richard Myland, Javier Botet, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, Nick Moran
An estranged mother and daughter struggle to reconnect while both women are targeted by an ancient demon and its human slave.
Jess’ drug addiction didn’t just ruin her life. It also ruined the life of her daughter Chloe, who has paid the price for her mother’s selfishness by living out her teen years in a social services group home.
Jess spent that same time putting herself back together. Now she is a sober artist living with her new beau Ben in a pretty palatial estate, and she wants Chloe to stay there with them.
Chloe isn’t about to play ‘House’ by pretending Jess can be forgiven so easily. But Chloe comes to consider she might need the safety of family after a witch thought dead comes back from the grave to haunt her.
Kids always claimed local recluse Mary Aminov kept a demon in her spooky old house. Dare to knock once on her door and you’d wake her from bed. Dare to knock twice and one could supposedly summon the dead. Chloe and her friend Danny took the rhyme so far that Mary was driven to suicide from frustration. Now approaching adulthood, the duo dares to knock once again. Yet when Danny disappears and a creepy creature begins crawling for Chloe, the troubled teen realizes there might be more to Mary than mere urban legend.
“Don’t Knock Twice” is right at home on the slate of theatrical thrillers springing up often around January-February. The movie is cut from the same cloth as titles like “The Boy” (review here), “The Forest” (review here), and “The Woman in Black 2,” where the template for early year horror tends to be a strong single woman fighting a personal struggle with one hand, and a supernatural battle with the other.
(Technically, Jess has a husband. But Ben is of the absentee a-hole variety, belittling Lucy’s profession for bonus bastard points before disappearing on another “my banking career is important” business trip. He is effectively irrelevant, likely included mainly to explain how a recovering addict sculptor can afford to live in a grandly gothic English mansion.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with formula when it functions well enough, which is the case here. It just bears noting that the carefully crimped film fabric of this tightly sewn sleeve isn’t hiding a whole lot up it.
Keeping “Don’t Knock Twice” from succumbing to the quicksand trap drowning similar films in rote jolts and standardized storytelling is the mother-daughter relationship between its two leads. Oz Perkins favorite Lucy Boynton continues emerging as a transfixing talent whose aura appears inherently tuned to paranormal proceedings. Concurrently, Katee Sackhoff continues evolving from the leather-clad tough girl personas of her early career into mature roles with more character complexity.
Both women collectively force the material to have heft on the screen that it doesn’t really have on the page through pure acting prowess. If “parent and child combating a creature” counts as a subgenre, and it should considering acclaim surrounding such fare as “The Babadook” (review here) and “Under the Shadow” (review here), “Don’t Knock Twice” is a notable standout for its sincere familial bond. The monster melds with their melodrama without favoring one over the other, making for a final product more balanced than something like “The Monster” (review here) at any rate.
While on the subject of its stars, if he wasn’t already, “Don’t Knock Twice” cements Javier Botet as the third point to Doug Jones and Mark Steger in their triad of go-to performers for lankily-limbed creatures. Andy Serkis gets the AAA attention, although the other three men seemingly spend more time in makeup than out of it when it comes to studio or indie horror. Botet’s movements as the Baba Yaga beast haranguing Jess and Chloe tap their full fear factor potential as Botet reminds once again why his is a name to be noticed.
Most of the movie’s energy comes from emotion, though that doesn’t satisfy the suspense quotient for horror hungry audiences. Director Caradog James, who helmed the entertaining sci-fi drama “The Machine" (review here), aptly applies his eye for moody photography, spooky staging, and pulling measured performances from his cast.
Where James falls short is in timing the tempo for triggering slow-building beats. Many moments extend rubber bands of tension missing their cues to snap back for a scare. Single note sound setups last for so long, you practically envision the piano key needing to pause for another inhale before resuming its mission to draw out a scene.
I confess I’m not sure I followed every detail of the film’s mythology. Is it one knock to summon Mary and two to rouse the demon, or the other way around? I’m not even sure the movie is consistent about its own urban legend and Russian folklore twist, or whether it all adds up in the end.
I’m also not sure it matters. Warts and all, the background fiction is intriguingly frightening enough to fit the supernatural story of two women fighting for family through unimaginable horror.
Pacing needs a backside kick that never comes. This absent urgency is the bear hug holding back “Don’t Knock Twice” from hitting a swifter stride. Still, Sackhoff and Boynton alone make the movie worth watching. Even with some dull stretches and dodgy dot-connecting, there remains a witchiness in its air that keeps “Don’t Knock Twice” creepily compelling.
Review Score: 65