Thursday 7 September 2017

On demand: "Don't Knock Twice"

The breakthrough success of 2015's The Witch and the renewed volatility of gender politics may mean we're in for an influx of witchcraft in cinemas over the coming months. Don't Knock Twice, the Welsh director Caradog James' follow-up to 2013's promising philosophical sci-fi The Machine, sets out to do something a little more characterful within the bounds of quiet-quiet-loud horror. Its main event is a mother-and-child reunion that would be fraught enough even if sculptor Jess (Katee Sackhoff) and Chloe (Lucy Boynton), the now-teenage offspring Jess abandoned at birth while battling drug dependency issues, hadn't been joined, in the palatial residence mom shares with her flash banker hubby, by the pallid spirit Chloe believes she summoned during her extended stay in care by ginger-knocking on a local crone's front door.

The mind quickly races towards the thematic possibilities this interloper provides; we're led to wonder whether the witch might be an avatar of neglect, insecurity, loneliness or childlessness, the spectres of all of which hang heavy over this particular household. Yet for much of the duration James's interest resides in the tentative pas de deux going on between his leads, two complicated women nervily circling one another, unsure whether they want to embrace or just throttle the other one. Their uncertain dynamic follows on from the Teresa Palmer-Maria Bello subplot in last summer's sleeper hit Lights Out, but benefits from being couched within a British social-realist setting (the foster home, the class tension between boho mother and loadsamoney hubby, a slightly overemphatic Nick Moran as the cop on the case).

The weak spot is the plotting, which doesn't click pleasingly so much as clang discordantly together, overly reliant as it is on such narrative shortcuts as Jess uncovering a Lever Arch file or glancing upon a framed photo to work out who the real demon is here, and at the very last burping up one ending too many. Here lies the kind of contrivance that requires finessing for an audience not to notice how contrived it is. Still, the more often than not analogue VFX are - as in James's previous production - well above average, the imagery (such as Jess and Chloe burning all the doors in their property, ironically to prevent malevolent spirits from crossing their threshold) is generally arresting, and there's one genuine surprise come the final reel. Two films in, and James is shaping up as a capable genre kid: someone should hand him the script and budget that puts directors in the multiplexes, and see what results.

Don't Knock Twice is now streaming on Netflix.

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