Written by: Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Directed by: Caradog W. James
Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Lucy Boynton, and Richard Mylan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Pray she doesn't answer.
Every town has that local legend, one that usually involves that old, decrepit house every child knows to avoid but canít help but be fascinated by. They pass around long-whispered tales about the supposed inhabitants, perhaps goings of far as to concoct games to goad each other into walking to the doorstep to confront the unseen horrors. Horror stories and films have mined this sort of material for decades now, and Donít Look Twice arrives looking to be the next in the tradition of Elm Street, Candyman, and its ilk by conjuring up a new cinematic boogeyman. Well, on the surface anyway, as the film is also preoccupied by spinning a whiplash-inducing narrative that doesnít allow it to fully commit to its mythos, resulting in a film full of half-baked ideas, most of which are just being re-heated from better movies anyway.
You can practically check off the clichťs as they unfold: troubled teen Chloe (Lucy Boynton) has had a strained relationship with her mother, Jess (Katee Sackhoff), who ditched her in an orphanage as a child. Resistant to Jessís attempts to reach out and bring her home, Chloe instead lashes out and insists she never wants to see her again. Later that same night, however, she and a friend have a conversation that turns towards the old, abandoned house that haunted them as children. Cryptic references to an old childhood friend indicate some past trauma, though itís not enough to dissuade the two from playing the old game that insists you must knock on the Mary Aminovís door twice to summon her demonic spirit, which supposedly haunts the place. To Chloeís horror, the old legend turns out to be true, as she watches her friend get dragged away by some unseen paranormal force during a Skype conversation. Naturally, she rushes right into the arms of her mother, who is happy to have her daughter back despite her outlandish claims.
Admittedly, I thought Iíd be able to set my watch by the seemingly predictable arc at hand here, especially when Jess is haunted by a disturbing nightmare involving Mary Aminovís suicide. Between the familial tension and the lore Chloe uncovers explaining that this force can only be defeated if it finds a new host, it looks to be yet another surefire possession tale (but one where the mother is targeted). But instead of going down that path, it starts to dart down several others, digging up and tossing out possibilities and fake-outs to throw the viewer of the scent. While it does keep the audience disoriented and unable to pin down just where itís going, it also has the effect of discouraging investment in the characters. Itís hard to care about what might happen to this mother/daughter duo when the script is continually playing ďgotcha,Ē especially towards the end.
Nor does it allow the audience to soak in what is a fairly solid mythos, one that trawls the depths to dig up the little-referenced Baba Yaga legend from Eastern European folklore. Even though itís haphazardly relayed (Chloe apparently digs it up online, apropos of nothing, and Jess has a vaguely European friend who happens to be an expert on this stuff), itís something that at least feels a bit different for once, as it comes with its own set of ďrulesĒ for vanquishing it. The specific lore surrounding Mary Aminov isnít bad, either: after she supposedly abducted a child years ago, she was hounded until she committed suicide, at which point she became something much more sinister. Itís familiar but just distinguished enough to be intriguing, especially when the characters hint that she carries children off to some mysterious netherworld.
But alas, the film diverts away from what should be its main draw, introducing doubt in the form of a disbelieving local detective (Nick Moran) out to quickly dismiss the tale. Heís almost too eager to do so, which prompts a suspicion in Jess that suddenly turns the whole film on its head. Donít Knock Twice tends to unfold in messily-spliced segments, and this stretch feels akin to the paranormal investigations found in early-aughts ghost tales. What if Mary Aminov was innocent, her name slandered as a scapegoat? To its credit, the film moves quickly enough, propelled by a page-turning sense of momentum until it careens into a wild, twisting, turning climax. If Jessís mid-movie suspicion turns the film on its head, then the ending jostles it up completely, leaving it in the shape of an unnaturally contorted pretzel.
And while its ultimate revelation is quite a rug-puller, itís only in the service of a temporary shock, another one of those ďgotchaĒ moments that wonít linger beyond the credits. Donít Knock Twice is a film that postures at crafting a skin-crawling mythos but chickens out by opting for empty twists instead. Oddly enough, it does so in the service of circling right back around to what it dangled in the first place, albeit with an added out-of-left-field twist. The whole stretch where it questions the supernatural nature of the events is ridiculous considering, you know, itís already made it supernatural elements quite clear. We literally watch an entity drag a character away within the first ten minutes, so Iím not so sure why the film bothers with an elaborate, digressive fake-out in the first place.
None of this would be as disconcerting if the film were inspired in any other way. For all its narrative twists and turns, it has very little life behind it as it resorts to trotting out the same jump scares involving CGI demons. Even the eventual trip in the Aminov netherworld comes off as a low-rent take on the Further, and the demonic witchís design is hardly inspiring. This is more or less the same orchestration of lame jolts and obvious imagery audiences have been subjected to for years now, and it has the further effect of undercutting what could have been a powerful character drama. Both Sackhoff and Boynton (who has become a welcome presence in genre fare recently) deserve much better than what theyíre offered here: outside of the usual shouting matches, the two have little to do, especially once theyíre just reduced to rats in the narrativeís winding maze. I couldnít help but think this is a less effective riff on The Monster, a film that similarly weaves family trauma and substance abuse through supernatural events to much greater effect.
Donít Knock Twice isnít exactly a bait-and-switch, as it does eventually deliver on its premise; still, it hardly feels committed to it or its characters, so the audience is left with a half-hearted attempt that feigns at being about something when it really only wants to bludgeon them with empty twists and shocks. You might not see the ending coming, but does it matter if you donít really care to?
Don't Knock Twice is currently available on DVD/Blu-ray exclusively at Wal-Mart. The Scream Factory/IFC Midnight release includes a theatrical trailer and a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as supplements.
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