Don't Knock Twice

Don't Knock Twice ★★★

This was one of those movies that I saw a trailer for once and forgot about until I came across it sitting on the shelf in Wal Mart. It looked decent enough and I remember the trailer being slightly intriguing, plus it's from Shout Factory and I have an addiction to owning horror movies, so naturally I bought it. I didn't have any high hopes for it or lofty expectations, I just expected a fairly generic Witch movie that I could view mindlessly and enjoy briefly. Luckily for me it was far more enjoyable then it appears and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed what I was watching.

The story, or legend if you will, that this film revolves around is that there is a Witch living in a rickety old house on the outskirts of town (and right by the highway from the looks of it) who will come after you and eat you if you knock twice on her door. This of course does not deter two local teens from doing just that. After one of these unfortunate youngsters is dealt with, the remaining girl, Chloe (Lucy Boynton), decides to move in with her estranged mother, Jess (Katee Sackhoff), who is clean off drugs and looking to reconnect with the daughter she put up for adoption years ago. Unfortunately for Chloe, and maybe even more so for Jess, the Witch doesn't seem overly perturbed by this change of address and comes for her anyway. Interspersed with this more compelling, and luckily more focused upon, storyline is the mystery of who or what the Witch is and what happened to her when she was still alive, along with what happened to all of the missing children from when Chloe was a kid. The mystery weaves in and out of the narrative, but once Chloe and Jess get back to the gigantic mansion in the country and the Witch comes after them the movie maintains a steady stream of unnerving chills and encroaching dread.

One of the first things to get into, before delving into the scares and story and other juicy bits, is the acting. Acting in horror movies, especially straight to DVD ones, has never really been a big concern or problem for me. It comes with the territory really and in some regards it's to be expected and even, occasionally, appreciated in one way or another. But, with that being said, it always makes it so much more apparent when I am watching such a horror film that actually has some decent acting in it. Don't Knock Twice is just such a film. The cast isn't exceptionally big, which means there's less chance for anyone to fuck it up to badly, but the two leads do such an amazing job that everyone else could have flubbed every third line and I wouldn't have given a shit. Sackhoff as the emotionally vulnerable mother nails just about every scene she's in. She manages to convey just the right amount of insecurity and doubt with an inner strength and determination, especially towards the end of the movie, that she completely embodies the character and elevates the role above what had the potential to be, and usually is in horror films, a one note and unengaging performance. The same can be said for Lucy Boynton, who I am already in love with after watching The Blackcoat's Daughter. She takes a role that could have gone any number of ways, and most usually just winds up drowning in its own puddle of stereotypes, and makes it completely believable. She infuses it with enough levels of the expected angst and teenage indignation and she mounds fear and paranoia and fragility on top of all that. It's a fantastic performance that, when paired with the amazing work done by Sackhoff, really lifts the movie from the doldrums it could have found itself in. Nick Moran as the detective, Richard Mylan as the husband Ben, and Pooneh Hajimohammadi as the extremely knowledgeable model, pretty much round out the cast. While none of them can hold a candle to the fantastic performances of Sackhoff and Boynton, they at least don't suck to much. They may be a little inconsistent and slightly forced at times, but they're more or less serviceable in their roles, with Moran being the only one to really have a great scene or two.

The acting was far better then I was expecting going into this and my expectations were equally shallow in regards to just about everything else. So since I was already pretty blown away by the excellent lead performances I was essentially flipping over the back of the couch at how wonderfully this was shot. Whether it was shots of the art gallery in the house, or the witch's house, or long and ominous hallways, or the countryside mansion, or a fairytale like trek through a mystic woods it all looks infinitely better then I was anticipating. Maybe even better then it rightfully should. Adam Frisch did an outstanding job with the cinematography of this film. There are some beautiful, and non frightening, shots that a great to look at, but this is a horror film and when the tension is being dialed up Frisch really shines. The opposing color palettes of darker colors vs almost glowing neon shades of similar colors (reds and blues and blacks) got me every time and I thought it all looked great. The use of back lighting and shadows came into play in a lot of the scenes and it was used very effectively. Some of the credit is obviously due to the acting and the directing, but the way Frisch captured it all on the screen deserves a lot of credit.

It all really tied together for me, especially the first 2/3 of the movie. I was genuinely impressed with the level of creepiness that exuded from this movie and the fact that some parts of it were actually pretty scary. The scene towards the beginning with a young guy looking through his peephole and seeing the elongated and emaciated figure of the witch standing at the end of his hallway was one of my favorite scenes of this movie and one of the better scenes of a horror film that I've seen in a while. It wasn't anything super impressive or wildly original, but the music and the acting and the filming and all of it just added up to create a memorably unnerving scene. And luckily, during the better portion of the film, there were other scenes with an equally impressive creepiness factor. Lucy Boynton walking around upstairs while the slashed throat ghost of an elderly woman keeps darting from room to room behind her, Katee Sackhoff preparing to face off against the creature while it quietly creeps down the wall behind her, the witch beast slowly appearing from behind an overturned dresser are just a few that come to mind. Even now, it being so long since I've watched the movie and written this review, all of these scenes have stuck with me in one way or another and that's always a great thing with a horror film.

I also really liked the fact that this movie seemed to be waging a war with itself in regards to what approach it should take to the horror aspects of the film. In a lot of ways this shows indecision on the director's part, but in another way it allowed me to experience both sides of the coin. There is a serious dedication to atmosphere and slow burning terror in the first portions of the movie, but as it progresses the story seems to slowly sink itself into the realm of the jump scare. Personally, I was really fond of the slow creeping dread of the atmospheric approach, but I can also appreciate the merit of a well timed jump scare. I would imagine that most people are scattered somewhere on either side of this coin, and I'm equally sure that there are those that enjoy both and those that can't stand either. I'm someone who resides uncomfortably in the middle, leaning more towards avoiding the pitfalls of jump-scaring the audience at every opportunity. I find it to be a far less effective approach. But for this film I was happy to experience both. Somehow it didn't make the movie feel indecisive, but actually more whole. More attuned to the characters. Slow, dawning dread for the adult and jump scares and musical cues for the terrified teenage who jumps at shadows. I'm sure that wasn't the intent, but it's how I viewed it and that made it somewhat more enjoyable. The atmosphere may not be the most nuanced and creative, but it was effective. The jump scares may have been a little too predictable and frequent, but there were a couple of really well crafted ones scattered throughout the movie. This is a horror movie that, as far as approaches to the subject matter goes, has a bit of everything from mythology to slow burn to oppressive suspense to teen craze jump scares. This doesn't make it some kind of genre redefining horror film and nor does it mean that this movie goes above and beyond in any category, but it does mean that it was decidedly more fun to watch and had a lot more to offer horror and scares wise then a movie that tries to play it safe and only go one way with everything.

The movie also keeps a solid pace throughout. The runtime isn't much to start with, only 93 minutes, but it feels like it flies right by. The tension and suspense build and then break and then start building again before the viewer has a chance to really chill out and that makes this seem like an incredibly quick movie. It manages to cram all of those different set pieces, like the prison cell and the woods walk and the witch's house and the country mansion, all into that time frame while also juggling the personal relationships of a recovering addict mother and her estranged daughter. What's more is that the legend of the Baba Yaga (shockingly this is something besides being John Wick) winds up playing a prominent role in the film and the whole legend of that creature is crammed into the movie as well. As much as I like, especially the first hour of it, I do admit there is way to much going on in this movie that it loses its focus from time to time. The first hour of this movie was impeccable, but the last 33 minutes it really started to crumble.

There was more development needed in certain areas to really flesh this movie out. If you want your movie to be about the Baba Yaga demon then focus on that and flesh it out. If you want it to be about a witch then focus on that and flesh it out. If you want this to be about a serial killer and have the spooky shit turn out the be some kind of mental manifestation then focus on that as best you can and flesh it out. They manage, over 93 minutes, to somehow make this movie seem like its about all of these things and that just doesn't really work. Mainly because some of these contradict others and therefore a lot of backtracking and twisting has to occur. I understand what was being attempted, trying to make the movie more then just a straightforward supernatural witch tale, but in some regards that's what this was and that's what it needed to be. It gets so lost in its own story about what could be happening and what could be after the leads that it sort of loses the viewer as well. It's a murder mystery wrapped up in a drama smothered by a supernatural horror tale, but it wants to be all three. In attempting to get all of that into one movie it starts to have a lot of twists and turns and red herrings, but after a little while the viewer knows what's up. We know this is a fucking witch movie/creature feature and that these women are being hunted by something far more interesting then a kid killer covering their tracks. We know as we're watching it, so I would imagine they knew it as they were making it. I don't mind a few twists and turns in my horror films, it spices em' up sure, but a twist every five or six minutes? Get the fuck outta here. It got redundant and the one thing you never want to see in your story or your film is redundancy.

Some of this could have been forgivable and warranted this movie getting a higher rating from me, but on top of it losing its way story wise it also lost the battle of the scares. It stopped being atmospheric and balanced. I was getting a lot less suspense and build up and just a lot of jump scares and screaming music. And that's a real shame because the ending of this movie had a lot of potential for some really well crafted and suspenseful scenes of horror. Worse then it dropping the ball on the scares was the actual ending they decided to go with. It was something like a triple, if not a quadruple, fucking twist and that drove me nuts. Someone isn't a bad guy but someone else is a bad-guy and there's this double cross and this murder and this twist and that twist and then BOOM! Dumbfuck jumpscare twist ending. Not even really a cliffhanger so much as just it making me want to jump off a cliff. Between the lost scares and the fucking carousel of plot turns and that final scene ending I was pretty bummed with the last portion of this movie. The last half hour lost its way and started playing like the movie I had expected to watch all along, and that was only hard to tolerate because the first hour or so was such a great display of horror.

Caradog James doesn't really have anything credited to his name besides this film and one or two others and I sincerely hope that changes soon. This movie may not be redefining any kind of horror trope or genre, but it is far better then it has any right to be. It is superbly acted and wonderfully shot. The scares, until the last portion anyway, are well thought out and crafted and they are executed with a sense of purpose and focus. This movie has a lot of really great thing to admire about it, but it also has a lot of things that expose the lack of output by the director. This is the second or third movie by this director in 11 years and his first horror film. I can't help but think that if James had a few more films under his belt, or had dabbled in the realm of horror before this film, then we may have had an even better trip into the horrorzone then we do here. This is most of a good movie. It's nothing most of us haven't seen before in one form or another, but it looks better here and it's more fun to watch. Plus it can be genuinely unsettling at times. It has some fairly annoying bits, like the fact that apparently every single person in the country they're in knock exactly twice on any door or surface they can find and, also, that there is some kind of bird that sounds like it's being killed that calls out every twenty minutes, but these are less truly damaging to film as much as they are distracting to the viewer. What matters is that it falls apart a bit at the end, but what matters more is that it losing its footing a bit hardly warrants the extremely negative reviews this film has. This movie is worth a watch. There's plenty to enjoy and there's some things to hate, but all in all it's a very solidly enjoyable direct to DVD horror movie that deserves a lot more love.

I hope Caradog James gets back behind the camera for another horror movie soon. If it's as good as this one, and maybe fixes a few of the flaws, then he's definitely got a fan in me.

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