“There’s a darkness around her.”
— Tira (Poonah Hajimohammadi), Don’t Knock Twice
We might say that horror films are all about gender and sex. We might also say that individual films in the genre tend to follow one of the opposing paths laid out by Carol Clover, in her 1992 book, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, and Barbara Creed, in 1993’s The Monstrous Feminine. That is, either they represent women as victims and depict the suffering of the Final Girl who survives the onslaughts of her (typically) male attackers, or they engage with the female reproductive body as the prototype of horror, conceptualizing women as abject agents like witches or aliens.
Don’t Knock Twice subverts this binary model in unexpected — and scary — ways.
The film confirms that Welsh director Caradog W. James is a master of superior genre work following on from his stylish future-noir thriller The Machine (2013). Don’t Knock Twice is an elegant combination of supernatural horror and the slasher film. The plot focuses on a guilt-ridden mother, Jess (Katee Sackoff), and her desperate attempt to reconnect with the disaffected teenage daughter, Chloe (Lucy Boynton), whom she placed in care almost a decade earlier. The power of maternal love is tested to its limits as she fights to save Chloe from a malevolent witch.
Men here are like disposable props, peripheral to the main story but crucial to the plot’s development. Chloe’s boyfriend Danny (Jordan Bolger) insists on knocking twice on the door of a deserted gothic house, despite the urban legend that this is precisely what will wake the demon from the dead. Jess’ husband Ben (Richard Mylan) is a banker who is conveniently absent on a business trip for most of the action. Detective Boardman (Nick Moran) is always waiting and watching, becoming an object of suspicion to Jess, and to us. He’s a disempowered spectator, a sacrificial pawn in a shady game whose purpose is not revealed until the plot’s conclusion.
If men are props and victims, women are the agents. At once a horror film and an intimate and intense chamber piece, Don’t Knock Twice places Jess and Chloe center stage. The narrative is as much about how they negotiate their reunion and past betrayals, as about the ancient history that threatens to destroy them. Jess is fearless and resourceful (and will likely remind viewers of Sackoff’s physicality as Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, as well as her previous turn battling demons, from 2013’s Oculus). Here her adversaries are powerful female figures, an alleged child killer from Chloe’s childhood and the evil, skeletal hag she serves (Javier Botet). Seemingly mediating between the two worlds is Tira (Poonah Hajimohammadi), with her clichéd Eastern European knowledge of evil.
While women or women-like fiends might oppose each other, the connected red threads of maternity and female creativity run through the film. Jess is a sculptor. Time and again we see her in her chapel-like studio, forming and deforming her artwork, even as Ben talks about the “hideous things she makes”. Indeed, even before they move or mutate, Jess’ sculptures are covered in a creepy plastic so they resemble shrouded, ghostly figures. Ben thinks that being an artist is not a “real job”, a comment that made me wish for him to come to a bad end. The symbolically freighted project on which Jess is currently working is a Madonna and child, for which Tira and her baby are posing.
Art helps Jess and Chloe reconnect, for Chloe is an artist too. In her first scene, she’s coloring Danny’s arm with wild images that hint at the power of her imagination. She quickly becomes a sympathetic scream queen and seems destined to be our Final Girl. But is she a victim? Did she commit a terrible crime? Can she only be a victim or a criminal? Tira claims to see a “darkness” around Chloe and snatches her baby out of reach. She gifts Jess a protective amulet that she says signifies the “power of a mother’s love”.
In a type of semiotic overload, mothers multiply. Chloe searches the internet for the images of the figure she’s glimpsed and finds that the “Baba Yaga” or “dark mother” devours innocent children. I can’t quite figure out if the film wants to critique patriarchal structures of monstrous maternity or collude with them. Perhaps more to the point, we might recall Linda Williams’ speculation that a woman character, or viewer, may find visual pleasure in the monster’s presentation of “a horror version of her own body” (Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess, Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4, 1991).
Complicating the question of pleasure, the film also poses moral questions. What are the boundaries separating the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful? Is creativity also always destructive? Is Jess a monster because she traumatized her daughter (or, as the significantly named Detective Boardman puts it because she “fucked up that poor little girl’s life”)? Who’s responsible for whom and who possesses whom? Her mother claims that Chloe is “mine”, as does the witch. In this vein, the scary woman in black who haunts the human protagonists morphs into Jess in a nightmare sequence. In another scene, a mirror shows us the skeletal hag while Jess sees only herself.
All these quasi-philosophical musings are wrapped up in a film that pays homage to traditional horror conventions and adds some shiny new ones. Along with the magic mirror, haunted house, and vengeful witch, there’s some Skype-horror and a wicked organic carrot and coriander soup. Cinematographer Adam Frisch deploys satisfying scare techniques, with objects haunting the background while our protagonists are in the foreground (and vice versa), and blurry figures disappearing down corridors. There’s blood, too, but we are left to imagine rather than merely see the worst excesses of violence.
In keeping with this restraint, the film’s visual aesthetic, like its moral agenda, is dark, often monochromatic or sepia-tinted. Camera movements are unpredictable and eerie; everything is underlit. The atonal score (music by Steve Moore and James Edward Barker) sets one on edge. The breathing, groaning, and whimpering noises that saturate the soundtrack are eerily effective.
I watched it alone at night in a country house, with a storm swirling around outside and the windows rattling. When my son arrived home unexpectedly and rapped twice on the door — to give me a fright — I dropped my laptop. The film, then, delivers on two levels. Savor its clever annotations of feminist horror film theory. Or just enjoy the more visceral pleasures of fear.