Don’t Knock Twice’s strengths lie in an ability to conjure a genuinely unnerving malevolence courtesy of its terrifying villain, while the dynamic of mother and daughter finding strength in each other provides an engaging backdrop.
Sometimes it matters little that a film wallows in the tropes that inspired it when there’s such a display of energy and imagination in delivering them. And in horror, when part of the fun of watching terror ensue is the satisfaction of nerve-jangling expectations being fulfilled, there’s nothing wrong with targeting invention at set pieces and dramatic ingenuity over thematic originality.
And that’s where Don’t Knock Twice shines. From the pen of writing duo Nick Ostler and Mark Huckerby, who wrote the equally enjoyable werewolf movie Howl, this frenetically paced tale of urban legend switches lycanthrope for witch and ensemble survival story for mother-daughter relationship rehabilitation.
Ostler and Huckerby concoct a chilling vision of witches seeking prey from a supernatural otherworld, with a nod to a knowledgeable audience well-versed in the mechanics of a good scare. But they’re somewhat in debt to the talents of director Caradog James, perhaps best known for sci-fi The Machine starring Toby Stephens, whose capacity to ratchet up the tension distinguishes Don’t Knock Twice as a horror film which genuinely unnerves.
It doesn’t shirk its generic trappings, fire and brimstone conveyed in an unsubtle credit sequence before the introduction of the plot’s overarching conflict between mother and estranged teenage daughter. Jess (Katee Sackhoff) wants to rekindle her relationship with Chloe (Lucy Boynton) following years of separation due, in part, to the former’s drug use debilitating her capacity to look after her child. But Chloe isn’t interested.
That is until she’s coaxed into knocking on a dead lady’s door, summoning an ungodly malevolence which proceeds to devour her close friend (in a sequence that would make Insidious’ Leigh Whannell or James Wan blush) before turning her – its – attention on the troubled teen. For reasons director James doesn’t concern himself with, she turns to her mother for help.
It is of course the ideal set-up for a struggle surrounded by maternal guilt, the reestablishment of bonds just as they are forced apart once more. Inconsistencies in plot and, at times, James’ rush to the next set piece hamper Don’t Knock Twice’s effectiveness as a familial drama in a paranormal environment but the technical skill with which the film thrusts its audience head first into impenetrable evil and its accompanied threat means such flaws can be shooed under the carpet.
There’s also a troubling, ambiguous undertone. Jess’ profession making clay statues, many of them of a biblical nature, reminds of John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) restoring ancient churches in Don’t Look Now, and manages to maintain a sense of dread.
It prefaces some well-orchestrated action beats that, while taking their cues from tried and trusted methods, are boosted by a particularly nasty villain. Indeed, James’ witch, stick-like with the movement of a part-crippled arachnid, is a terrifying creature. He pleasingly keeps “her” in the shadows, cleverly restricting her presence to indistinct silhouette prior to her more evasive interaction with the film’s protagonists.
At times, the film suffers from hasty pacing that hampers the film’s central familial conceit and character development. I counted a handful of moments that felt rushed, perhaps seeking to streamline the film’s running time or serve those with very short attention spans. But the relentlessness of the malevolent presence means Don’t Knock Twice never allows us to regain our composure, assuredly laying on the terror with little respite.
James gives us just enough time between the lights going out to witness the unfolding of bonds between mother and daughter. Enlivened by the spirited performances of both Sackhoff and Boynton, the broken shards of their former estrangement beginning to glue together in the face of what preys upon them, the pair provide a convincing centrepiece to the surrounding paranormal activity. Sackhoff is particularly good as a young mother who turned her life around, while Boynton is an emerging talent with range and screen presence.
Whenever Don’t Knock Twice exhibits a distracting flaw (Pooneh Hajimohammadi might be hamstrung by an underwritten role as the provider of exposition but unlike her counterparts she doesn’t look as comfortable with the material) it is quick to re-right the ship. Certainly, its strengths lie in an ability to conjure a genuinely unnerving malevolence courtesy of its terrifying villain, while the dynamic of mother and daughter finding strength in each other provides an engaging backdrop. And it even has a few twists up its sleeve. Don’t Knock Twice is prime contemporary horror with classic roots; a stylish, unsettling experience.
Written by Dan Stephens
Don’t Knock Twice is released in cinemas and on demand March 31 and on DVD April 3.