Written by: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Starring: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, and Sofia Rosinsky
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
It was never meant to be opened.
Since 2008, it’s been popular to joke about how an especially bad movie looks like it should actually be a fake trailer from Tropic Thunder. It’s too bad The Cabin in the Woods didn’t catch on nearly as well because it should certainly have inspired a horror analogue with its whiteboard, which offers an entire host of readymade horror pitches for easily digestible consumption. There’s no shortage of actual horror movies that feel like they rolled right off of that film’s assembly line of predictable, safe offerings designed to placate the masses with familiarity. The Other Side of the Door is a perfect candidate for this joke: if you’re the type of person who wanted to pick “creepy ghost kid haunts his grieving parents” or "vengeful deity" on the whiteboard, Hollywood has listened to you.
Well, you and everyone else (including yours truly) that helped to popularize this particular brand of haunted house clockwork during the past decade or so. Only the particulars have been altered here. The parents are Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Michael (Jeremy Sisto), a couple of Americans who have relocated to India thanks to the latter’s job as a cultural archivist. Their happy existence is shattered, however, when their oldest child, Oliver, drowns in a car accident. Devastated because she was unable to save her son, Maria becomes suicidal and is only coaxed back from the brink by her housekeeper (Suchitra Pillai-Malik), who offers her a chance to say goodbye to Oliver. She directs Maria to her home village, where priests still perform an ancient ritual to communicate with the dead within a temple. The offer comes with one caveat: no matter what happens, Maria can’t open the door to the other side.
Naturally—and as has historically been the case with white people in India—Maria doesn’t respect the native customs and invokes the wrath of Myrtu, the (fictional) Hindu goddess responsible for maintaining the afterlife. All sorts of hell is summoned with her, including the reanimated spirit of Oliver, now a diabolical wraith bent on tormenting his mother and younger sister. You can practically set your watch by how this progresses, of course, as the hauntings escalate from subtle (Maria overhears her daughter talking to someone who isn’t there) to patently obvious (Oliver’s ghost forcibly makes his mom read him a bedtime story—and no, the movie is never quite as wonderfully goofy as this sounds). The Other Side of the Door is nothing if not completely, utterly gliding on rails, recycling the typical assortment of jump scares every step of the way.
In fact, this film is so familiar that it’s not even the first 2016 movie that can be vaguely summarized as “a Western woman ignores locals’ warnings when attempting to reconnect with a loved one in an ancient haunt.” It can be said that it’s more tolerable than The Forest, if only because it’s not aiming for vapid mind-fucking. Unlike many films with this premise, The Other Side of the Door doesn’t opt for ambiguity or insinuate that Maria is simply losing her mind. From the outset, it’s clear that she has unwittingly summoned a real-deal demon that wants to thoroughly wreck her shit, whether it’s toying with her by playfully manipulating Oliver’s favorite stuffed animal or killing actual animals.
This is not a film that lacks incident: once the haunting begins in earnest, it’s a nigh-relentless barrage of 90s alt-rock verse-chorus-verse outbursts reconfigured as a horror movie. Quiet moments rumble to a jolting crescendo, only to yield to a brief, introspective respite that sets up the next round of scares (well, “scares”—honestly, the only thing that caused me any alarm was the theater’s auditorium lights unexpectedly turning on in the middle of the movie). Like so much of the film, this structure and approach feels structurally sound, but it’s so rote that it’s about as unnerving as marking a checklist. Here’s your creepy piano clanking, there’s your creepy wet-haired ghost girl rising out of the water (between this, The Forest, and the upcoming Rings, it’s a banner year for movies that feel like they could have been released in 2005).
When the film starts flinging all this stuff out with reckless abandon during the climax, it’s tempting to give into its breathless lunacy. The Other Side of the Door almost goes just crazy enough to be completely worthwhile. As it flies through various modes, managing to echo everything from Pet Sematary to The Exorcist to even Cathy’s Curse, it threatens to come terrifically unhinged. Obviously, I won’t spoil one of the very few things this movie has going for it, but, suffice it to say, there’s some trashy delights to be fished out before the film resigns itself to more banal, inevitable predictability (though I do find something vaguely unsettling about its purgatorial feedback loop of an ending, to be fair).
To be even more fair, the film’s embellishments—particularly its location and mythology—are a welcome change of pace. India is a rarely-seen destination in Western horror, and its distinctive rural locales are evocatively uncanny. Shrouded by a thick canopy of gnarled trees and twisted vines, the ancient temple is an eerie set, cloaked in an almost voodoo-tinged mysticism. Even the family home—which seems to be situated somewhere near Dubai—is a wonderfully creaky, shadowy place, full of both spooky crevices and empty, melancholy spaces. For all its blandness, The Other Side of the Door features the occasional flourish, one that extends all the way to the make-up and creature design. Renowned creature performer Javier Botet brings Myrtu to ghastly life, though you’ll have to really commit yourself to nabbing a good look at it thanks to the haphazard camerawork and jagged editing. Publicity pictures confirm what the film does not: Myrtu looks really cool and deserves a much better movie than this. Hell, she simply deserves camerawork dedicated to actually capturing her.
One wishes the Indian setting lent itself to more than these superficial platitudes, as the region’s most prominent religion contorts into creepy window dressing for this menagerie of otherwise regurgitated horror tropes. As nice as it is to see some south Asian faces in an Anglo co-production, it must be noted that they mostly show up as literal servants or as native boogeymen. The Other Side of the Door faintly echoes those early horror films that twisted exoticism into a malevolent force waiting to engulf white people. I kept waiting—and hoping—for the film to move away from this sort of colonial paranoia, but it hardly wavers unless you read it as a story where an oblivious American unwittingly tampers with forces she doesn’t understand and is punished accordingly.
Maria recklessly upsets the cycle of life, putting her own selfishness above the customs and traditions she’s raided for her own personal gain. The presence of Kipling’s The Jungle Book suggests writer/director Johannes Roberts’s awareness of imperialist scars, though it often feels like he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth. Hindu customs and decorum should totally be respected, but they’re also terrifyingly mystical and shit. Beware these “strange” people and their even more “strange” way of life, all while exploiting them. I’m not quite convinced it has this (or much of anything) on its mind, but at least it features some subtext to ponder.
Mostly, though, The Other Side of the Door is expressly concerned with wafting over you as unobtrusively as it possibly can. Its bizarre choice to obscure its fantastic creature and makeup work aside, this is a film where everything feels neat as a pin: nothing is out of place in this exercise of underwhelming blandness, resulting in a movie that’s been engineered to be a slick but forgettable snooze carrying a toothless R-rating. Callies is burdened with shouldering a thin script with a thankless role that doesn’t demand much nuance, as everything is painted in the broadest, most obvious strokes, right down to Sisto’s predictable sidelining as the skeptical, clueless husband (you would think the script would take advantage of his job as an archivist, but nope!).
Besides its fairly unique setting, the film is only noteworthy for how quickly it leaves your consciousness—it exists to stimulate your brain for 96 minutes, after which it will never intrude on it again. The Other Side of the Door’s title ironically evokes a sense of mystery as its hinges creak with the familiar groan of a tired formula suffocating under lock and key.
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