Year: 2017
Director(s): Caradog W. James
Writer(s): Mark Huckerby, Nick Ostler
Color, 95 mins

Synopsis: A mother desperate to reconnect with her troubled daughter becomes embroiled in the urban legend of a demonic witch. (Source)

Most horror films are competent enough at getting their spooks right, but rarely register in terms of emotion or narrative thrust. Don’t Knock Twice, from Caradog W. James, doesn’t have this problem, benefiting from the director’s sure hand and ability to make the most of a deceitfully simple story. James’ emotional hook, that of a mother and daughter looking to reconnect, is told with atmospheric aplomb and an assured sense of rhythm, with frights that are impeccably staged and progressively intense. The performances are an asset as well, with stars Kate Sackhoff and Lucy Boynton giving their all to ground the film’s spiraling supernatural deception. This is a gothic ghost story with modern edge, propulsive and with a focus on the humanity at stake.

The story begins with Jess (Katee Sackhoff), who is attempting to recollect her teenage daughter Chloe (Lucy Boynton), years after abandoning her to an orphanage. The encounter doesn’t go well, and Chloe tells pretty much tells her mother to never come back. Jess is hurt but understands, and gives Chloe her space. Later that night, Chloe and her friend Danny (Jordan Bolger) are messing around next to their neighborhood’s token haunted house, indulging an urban legend about a vengeful witch. After tempting fate, a frazzled Chloe runs back to Jess, who welcomes her with open arms. Before the two have time to settle, however, strange things begin to happen around Jess’ home. A dark evil has chosen its next souls, and will stop at nothing to claim its next victims.

Built around a simple emotional hook, the film is a fascinating blend of mythology and juicy misdirection. James knows the limitations of his source material, using the relationship between Chloe and Jess as an anchor, while things around them get more sinister and unnerving – it also serves to make sure the scares are both physical and psychological. Though lots of the elements here are well-worn, there’s a sense of electricity thanks to some stunning cinematography and the intangible danger that lurks beneath each shadowy frame. Light and dark play key characters in Jess’ home, where most of the action takes place, allowing each twist a patient build and satisfying payoff. On the spook-side of things, there’s a cool boogeywoman at play, brought to life by horror extraordinaire Javier Botet (Rec, Mama and more), keeping the film feeling more tactile than most of its CGI-flooded peers. From the brisk pace, to the folklore influence, things never outstay their welcome.

As mentioned, the centerpiece really is the relationship between Chloe and Jess, with the two characters getting equal play and sincere performances from Kate Sackhoff and Lucy Boynton. As the guilt-ridden Jess, Sackhoff is in great form, playing a tortured artist who is capable of channeling her angst into sculpture, but struggling to emote with her daughter. Sackhoff’s maternal instincts help to guide the film, underlying key scenes with a gentle-natured grace even despite some desperation. As the troubled Chloe, Boynton is always engaging, digging to solve a mystery amidst her own inner turmoil. In contrast, Boynton gets to manifest more of her character’s fragility, giving her a performance rooted in action more than dialogue. Together, the pair have tactile chemistry, able to make any part of the film feel natural and genuine.

If there’s a weak spot, it’s the film’s conclusion, which is a classic bait-and-switch without allowing for proper closure. Still, this doesn’t ruin the film, although it does prevent it from breaking the mold. As is, director Caradog W. James is an exciting visual craftsman, turning in an effort that understands the emotional consequence of its supernatural scares and roots them with flesh and blood emotion. Don’t Knock Twice is a solid chiller even if it doesn’t add much to the genre.

SG