Following up 2013’s The Machine, Caradog James turns his directorial talents once more to low-budget genre fare in Don’t Knock Twice; a suitably spooky supernatural horror starring Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackoff.
On the face of things, Don’t Knock Twice is a promising story about sculptor and reformed addict, Jess (Sackoff), and her attempts to win back the trust and affection of her estranged daughter, Chloe (Lucy Boynton). Horror and motherhood are familiar bedfellows, and often lay the groundwork for some truly chilling cinematic scares. Rosemary’s Baby, The Babadook, and most recently Under the Shadow all stand as testament to the frightening potential of mother-child relationships. Sadly, Don’t Knock Twice bogs down its central premise with a number of ghostly goings-on and convoluted twists.
We are told that Jess surrendered daughter, Chloe, to the state nine years ago. Now sober and a highly successful sculptor, she’s ready to atone for her past and regain custody of her child. Of course, the now-teenaged Chloe isn’t as keen. But when Chloe and her boyfriend summon the vengeful spirit of child murdering Mary Aminov by knocking twice on the door of her abandoned house, she reconsiders. Fearing that the ghost is pursuing her, Chloe flees to Jess’ country mansion to take refuge. What follows is a thoroughly decent hour of slow-burning dread and intrigue, before the film decides to dive head-first into full-on absurdist supernatural shenanigans.
There is certainly a good horror film buried beneath Don’t Knock Twice’s hubris. Both Sackoff and Boynton perform their roles with a palpable sense of yearning and pathos, and their onscreen chemistry is undeniable. Adam Frisch’s cinematography makes the very most of the film’s country manor setting, imbuing the oppressive negative spaces of the vast home with an eerie sadness. Though occasionally traipsing into well-worn images of back-lit wraiths and spectral old ladies, much of the visual scares land; helped in large part by thoughtful camerawork and Giallo-esque lighting design. The score hums with a synth-heavy spookiness that recalls the likes of Carpenter or Craven and it is clear that there’s a knowledge and appreciation of horror behind the film’s technical delivery.
Despite all this, however, the film is weighed down by details that distract or outright confuse its audience. For instance, Don’t Knock Twice is at pains to cast Jess in a suspicious light, almost going as far as to suggest her current success is a result of trading her first-born. Her preoccupation with possession also hints towards something more sinister; she is quick to clarify that she owns her share of the house, and frequently refers to Chloe as “belonging” to her. Though this might have made for interesting subtext, it is rather disappointingly forgotten in favour of poorly-explained Eastern European folklore and a child abduction subplot.
Much of the film’s shortcomings could easily have been avoided by greater attention to detail. A critical scene in which Chloe runs from her demonic pursuer through the darkened mansion is rendered almost funny thanks to the fact that she’s wearing a jumper emblazoned with “BITCH DON’T KILL MY VIBE”.
The logic of the film’s demonic antagonist also suffers from this lack of attention, at times contradicting the rules of engagement laid out previously in the plot, resulting in a messy series of misleads requiring some uncomfortably exposition-heavy moments just to keep the viewers onboard.
Though far from the worst horror offering you’re likely to see in cinemas this year, Don’t Knock Twice is regrettably haunted by the ghost of what it might have been – an intelligent and scare-savvy look at parenthood and sacrifice.
Words by Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin
Don’t Knock Twice is in released in cinemas and VOD on the 31st of March