Director: Caradog W. James
Cast: Katee Sackhoff, Lucy Boynton, Javier Botet, Nick Moran, Jordan Bolger, Pooneh Hajimohammadi, Ania Marson, David Broughton-Davies
Runtime: 1 hr 33 mins
Rating: NC16 (Horror)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 6 April 2017
Synopsis: Knock once to wake her from her bed, twice to raise her from the dead… So goes a disturbing urban legend involving an abandoned house supposedly inhabited by a vengeful, child-stealing witch. When troubled teen Chloe (Lucy Boynton) raps at the door one night, she has no idea the horror she’s about to unleash. Fleeing to the country home of her estranged mother (Katee Sackhoff)—a recovering addict who’s turned her life around to become a famous artist—Chloe must learn to trust the woman who gave her up years ago in order to stop the bloodthirsty, shape-shifting demon stalking them. This wild supernatural shocker delivers a barrage of nonstop jolts and searing nightmare images.
There are two plots that drive ‘Don’t Knock Twice’ in its first hour – one has a mother Jess (Katee Sackhoff) trying to win back custody of her now-teenage daughter Chloe (Lucy Boynton) after being forced to place her daughter in foster care nine years ago due to her alcoholism; the other has Chloe trying to flee the clutches of the ghost of a dead witch whom she and her boyfriend Danny (Jordan Bolger)imprudently summon using the heavy knocker still hanging on the door of the woman's crumbling, abandoned frame house in the course of tempting the veracity of an urban legend. Naturally at first, Jess doubts Chloe’s claims that she is being pursued by the late Mary Aminov – whom Chloe relates was suspected of the disappearance of a young boy named Michael Powers and committed suicide shortly after – and places further tension in their already strained mother-daughter relationship, especially after Jess finds her workshop in ruins and her sculptures smashed to bits.
If his screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler had simply stuck to the aforementioned plots, Caradog James’ sophomore feature would have been a much more compelling film. But as it is, the third and final act takes the narrative in all sorts of unnecessary places. One of Jess’ patrons, Tira (Pooneh Hajimohammadi), suggests that Mary may have been wrongfully accused all those years ago and needs the truth to be set right in order to be set free. The detective (Nick Moran) looking into Danny’s disappearance and who is close to Chloe happens to have been involved in the investigation behind Michael Powers before and may be somehow linked to the mysterious happenings after all. And last but not least, the legend which Chloe Googled online regarding the demon Baba Yaga which uses the help of a ‘marked’ human slave to devour its prey may or may not be relevant in the first place. If that reads exhausting, it feels even more so watching it unfold too.
Oh yes, just when the narrative is supposed to come together, the whole premise expands in terribly unwieldy fashion with backstory upon backstory, almost threatening to come apart entirely. Such is a classic example of ‘less is more’, and why the first hour is much more effective as a supernatural chiller than its last half-hour. As familiar as it may be, the fractured relationship between parent and child lends the story real weight, especially as it speaks to the difficult choices we are forced to make and the inevitable consequences of them when battling our own inner demons. James portrays their emotional distance not just in words but perhaps more importantly in the silences and non-verbal cues between them, giving Sachoff and Boynton space and autonomy to define the prickly relationship between their characters, which both actresses reward with fierce and committed performances.
On his part, James orchestrates the genre’s tropes with elan: a row of fluorescent lights along the corridor that shut off one at a time, an indistinguishable figure moving quickly in front of the camera or in the background, a bloody tooth in a bowl of soup, or even a gangly, stick-like figure (played by Spanish actor Javier Botet) that emerges to claim the afflicted marked with the witch’s curse. There is no one sequence that is truly original, but the undoubtedly effective jump scares coupled with dim, foreboding visuals mostly of the underlit interiors of Jess’ rural country-house as well as eerie synths on the soundtrack will make your hair stand and even your skin crawl. Despite this being his first horror feature, James has a firm grasp on pace and rhythm, especially in building up dread within each scene before the dreaded creature makes her entrance proper.
Still, all that technique ultimately cannot rescue the runaway narrative towards the end, nor disguise the fact that there does not seem to be any logic in the way that the witch attacks and retreats from its victims (in particular, Chloe). If you’re willing to overlook these flaws, ‘Don’t Knock Twice’ does succeed as a reasonably accomplished genre exercise with a couple of genuinely scary sequences and a pair of strong lead female performances. This we can reassure you though – even through its most implausible over-the-top twists, it never does get boring. So if you’re in need of a good scare and you’re not expecting the next ‘Conjuring’ or ‘Lights Out’, then this low-budget Welsh horror story will do the trick.
(Too many over-the-top twists and backstories result in a weak third act that undermines what is an otherwise a reasonably accomplished genre exercise in dread and terror)
Review by Gabriel Chong