Director Caradog W James’ follow-up to 2013 AI sci-fi The Machine, Don’t Knock Twice is a horror film that focuses on a mother and a daughter re-establishing their relationship with one another as supernatural forces try to tear them apart.
The central set-up, which I’ll mention is by far the least interesting part of the overall film, is troubled mother Jess (Katee Sackhoff) attempting to regain custody of the estranged Chloe (Lucy Boynton). Acting out, Chloe goes with her friend to the creepy old house of an alleged child murderer and, for some reason, baits her rumoured ghost by knocking on the door twice. Hijinks ensue.
What Don’t Knock Twice lacks in originality, it makes up for in creativity. Like a grab bag of horror sub-genres and conventions, there’s nothing too familiar or unfamiliar that the film won’t use in an attempt to scare its audience. There are mirrors and lighting effects, haunted houses, old hags, a distinct Japanese influence and even some Skype-horror. It’s a tour of the genre both old and new.
That might put some people off but, most importantly, it’ actually really scary. The stumbling of the clumsy first 20-minutes is a distant memory by the end. The execution is so fun and so well done that you can’t help but admire what it manages to do with admittedly old cliches and known twists.
I’d go as far as to say that the mix of conventions actually serves to unseat the audience even further – the horror can manifest in a different way from one scene to the next.
One minute you’re watching jump scares on a laptop’s Skype window, Paranormal Activity-style (or more recently, Unfriended) and the next it’s daytime and you’re dealing with statues seemingly taken out of Doctor Who’s Blink. Five minutes later we’re in a classic haunted house.
It makes good use of sound, also, with the repeated screech of foxes, wind and other diegetic noise reminding us that sometimes the ordinary world can sometimes be unnerving enough all by itself.
But some of this ‘kitchen sink’ approach also means that there are pacing issues which start to wear thin around the two-thirds mark. At other times the disparate tone is a hindrance rather than a help, leaving the audience with a disjointed experience that, though hugely enjoyable, doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
Of course, because this is billed as a supernatural horror, we should be looking for the metaphor from scene one. Don’t Knock Twice appears at the start to be Chloe’s story, but we gradually realise that she is simply a stand-in for her mother’s guilt and shame for having abandoned her years before. We learn that she is a recovering drug addict and, since giving up her daughter, has built a pretty comfortable life for herself.
That’s interesting fare for a family drama, but here it’s only surface level. The premise of an unknown, unseen force attempting to take Chloe away from her just as they start to connect isn’t hard to substitute in for the maternal fears of the character, but it does ground the action in something solid and somewhat relatable. Jess is not a natural caregiver, and has to learn how to be a mother over the course of the film. Horror comes before plot here, but there are brief moments that let the conflict breathe without interruption.
The creature design is excellent, also, and used effectively from start to finish. Less is more here, which any horror fan will admit is almost always preferable. Where there’s an overuse of false scares in parts, there are some shots in the last act that’ll have you holding you breathe as much in admiration of their style as for their ability to build suspense.
As said, some parts work better than others, but there’s plenty here for pretty much anyone to enjoy. Whether you want a spooky new horror for a Friday night at home or an interesting look at a mother-daughter relationship trying to rebuild, Don’t Knock Twice comes recommended.
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