Caradog W. James’s third movie Don’t Knock Twice follows a mother and the daughter, separated by social services, reconnecting after the daughter summons an angry demon. While the cast’s résumés speak for themselves (Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar Galactica plays the mother, while Lucy Boynton of The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House plays daughter Chloe) the demon is, hands down, the best part of the movie.
In The Conjuring and Insidious series, James Wan’s demons play games with the audience. The music builds to a climax before a character opens a closet. And then it’s empty. Four seconds later the character turns around. Boom. There’s a ghost in their face. The audience jumps. Don’t Knock Twice refines that by having the demon play games with the characters instead of the audience. Early on, Chloe and Danny (Jordan Bolger) are video chatting. Chloe hears a knock on the door and gets up. The audience watches through the Chloe’s webcam as the demon visits Danny without a witness.
What is the witch’s goal in The Conjuring when she jumps out at the characters? It seems that she’s only trying to scare them, which is dull after the initial jolt. What is the demon in Don’t Knock Twice accomplishing by jumping out? Well, it depends on the scene. Sometimes it’s herding characters away from their protectors, others luring guardians away. In most scenes, it’s clear that the demon is working with a strategy, which is a terrifying concept that the film executes wonderfully.
Don’t Know Twice is at its worst when it embraces tropes. In 2017, the black guy dies first trope is way too tired to be in the first fifteen minutes of yet another movie. The problem with this trope (aside from the obvious implicit racism) is its predictability, and as is the case in Don’t Knock Twice, it feels like feet-dragging tokenism. Danny (Jordan Bolger) is never developed into an even half-fledged character before he knocks twice.
Horror is all about surprise, and while I’m surprised that a movie like this one, which subverts the jump scare trope so well, let this trope stand as is, it wasn’t the kind of surprise that left me shocked or frightened as I should have been. Instead, I was bored and frustrated. Not to mention the kind of savvy viewers who seek out indie horror will see this death coming from a mile away.
In spite of this, James and his screenwriters Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler do some good work with the movie’s emotional core. In the still developing tradition of The Babadook, Don’t Knock Twice gives the characters a real-world emotional conflict to work through as they battle the supernatural. Jess and Chloe have a troubled relationship, and Sackhoff does a wonderful job as the mother, projecting an innate desire to connect. Boynton equals this, building a complex young woman who wants to love her mother but can’t forgive her.
The script isn’t always up to task, though. Jess makes a speech at one point about all the different times that she loved Chloe, “I loved you when you were born, I loved you when [x], I loved you when [y]” that falls completely flat. A list of times that Jess loved her daughter didn’t communicate love as much as a timeline of events we can watch for ourselves. It worked rhythmically, but felt hollow. There are tender moments between the two, but there are just as many that are meant to be tender and feel untrue.
This type of inconsistency in quality, and in continuity, plagues the film. Characters injuries are crippling in one scene, all but gone in the next. The lore keeps coming back and layering on top of itself, but each time another layer is introduced it kills the film’s momentum with exposition, when it didn’t need much beyond the catchy “Knock once to wake her from her bed, twice to raise her from the dead.”
Worse, each time the audience is given more information, the film makes less sense. The audience sees the two teens knock on the door twice on a bet. In the next few minutes, the demon is chasing them because of something they did in the past. And as the next slice of lore is layered on, the basic premise is changed yet again. This could be exciting if it were done more sparingly, but as it is, it’s confusing.
The ending manipulates tropes brilliantly – the best example of subversion in the whole film – to really shock the viewer. Because of the twists beforehand, however, it loses weight. It almost feels like the filmmakers were more interested in swerving the audience than they were in wrapping up the story in a logical and fulfilling way.
If Don’t Knock Twice purely did a good job of integrating the jump scares into the demon’s M.O., it would still be worth seeing. But it does more. It utilises implication rather than effects for its gorier moments to squeamishness-inducing effect. It has beautifully designed sets and seamless audio work. There’s a wonderful update of the killer’s POV cam that should’ve come back more. If only they could’ve tied it all together better, Don’t Knock Twice might have been a must-see.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director: Caradog W. James
Writers: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Stars: Katee Sackhoff, Lucy Boynton, Javier Botet
Studio/ Production Co: Red & Black Films, Seymour Films
Release date: February 3rd, 2017
Length: 95 min