Caradog James Don't Knock Twice

DON'T KNOCK TWICE Review: Loopy, Nonsensical, Ghostly Fun

Monday, February 06, 2017 Rob Samuelson

People with abandonment issues struggle throughout their lives to find a sense of safety. Anything that threatens to upset their comfort can cause intense anxiety. In director Caradog W. James’s latest genre film, Don’t Knock Twice, those stressful feelings are made manifest by a witch that threatens to drag a teenage English girl, Chloe (Lucy Boynton), into a magical torture realm that exists just beyond reality.

Photo credit: Don't Knock Twice/Facebook

Chloe was given up by her mother, Jess (Katee Sackhoff of TV’s Battlestar Galactica), an American artist with substance abuse issues. Jess has turned her life around -- her house can only serve soft drinks now, she says when she’s tempted to take a sip of something stronger. Jess has married a wealthy banker and moved back to England to try to reconnect with Chloe, who has lived in a group home since she was small. This gesture is too little, too late for the understandably defensive Chloe, who dismisses the idea of living with her mother again out of hand in an early scene. Jess is unaware of the trauma that accompanied Chloe’s upbringing. It included the abduction and murder of her friend when they were 10, and Chloe’s role in the demonization of an Eastern European immigrant woman who lived near the group home who was a suspect in the case. A grisly suicide and some horrific haunting later, and you’ve got yourself a Don’t Knock Twice -- the title refers to the mechanism through which the witch is summoned, by knocking twice on the door of the departed woman’s run-down house.

Once Chloe summons the witch on a dare (she thinks the knock-knock gag is an urban legend, but the joke is on her), she is left with little choice but to go to her mother’s enormous country house. Her stepfather must leave the country for a few days on business, which leaves the estranged daughter and mother alone to uncomfortably reckon with their past, all while a red-haired ghost woman wanders the halls of the home holding a butcher knife and threatening all kinds of harm.

James and the special effects department do a bang-up job on a limited budget to wring as many scares out of this malevolent presence as possible. Even though the movie’s color scheme is a dreary, dusty, and uninteresting gray, James and company manage to keep the scares and visual surprises coming. This witch stretches to impossible lengths, her blackened arms reaching toward Chloe and Jess like a pair of wretched tree branches. Mangled hands crawl out of sinks that run red with blood, inching closer and closer to their prey, these two women whose issues can hardly address their issues while running from this metaphysical doom.

The film struggles to resolve those and other issues in a satisfying way. The script, by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, is more concerned with rug-pulling “gotcha” moments than fully exploring what it means for these women to reconnect after a lifetime of mutual pain. It should be noted that Sackhoff gets a stellar speech about how the worst part of being a parent is loving your child so much that it breaks you whenever you make a mistake -- she sells it as the most genuine emotion in the picture. But the film lurches past that to tend to its loopy twists, which arrive with greater and greater frequency as it rushes to its conclusion.

It’s one thing to throw in a number of twists, but Huckerby and Ostler err by contorting their screenplay into knots, with some reveals contradicting others that popped up only minutes earlier. It is enough to keep the viewer off balance, which is an admirable quality in any horror-thriller. But keeping the audience guessing is not enough. These twists must make sense for the characters and they must be given enough time to breathe, to land with any sort of impact. The script loses itself by introducing potentially villainous characters so close to the end of the film, then it cuts that surprise off at the legs several times until the credits roll. It begins to feel a little like an episode of Scooby-Doo, with the movie saying, “The real villain all along was [insert bad guy/gal/creature here]!” By putting the pedal to the metal on these reveals, the movie never quite makes clear who the witch really is.

Script issues aside, Don’t Knock Twice is a case of having a director is skilled enough to manipulate dream imagery to craft fear that lasts longer than your typical jump scare. It may not always make a lot of sense, but when those tree-branch arms scratch their way across the floor, it enough to make sure you never even think about framing a scary old lady for a kid’s murder, that’s for sure.

Director: Caradog W. James
Writers: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Lucy Boynton, Javier Botet, Nick Moran, Pooneh Hajimohammadi
Rating: 3/5 stars

Available in limited release and on demand now

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