Posted on February 6, 2017

Don’t Knock Twice and the New Horror of Motherhood

Dawn Keetley

2016                R                     UK                  Caradog W. James                  95 mins.

Don’t Knock Twice is an interesting film that is lifted up by its exceptional performances and cinematography and by the way it taps into what I think is an intriguing new trend in horror film: the horror of motherhood.

Directed by talented Welsh filmmaker Caradog W. James (best known for the 2013 sci-fi film The Machine), Don’t Knock Twice centers on the relationship of Jess (Katee Sackhoff, of Battlestar Galactica) and the teenage daughter she abandoned nine years ago, Chloe (Lucy Boynton). The film opens with Chloe and her boyfriend Danny (Jordan Bolger) being inexplicably drawn to a house nearby where a woman named Mary Aminov used to live. Convinced that, years ago, she kidnapped and killed a boy who lived in their group home, Chloe and Danny harassed her long after the police decided they had no case. They drove her, it seems, to suicide, and now a legend has flourished that something demonic lives in her house. If you knock twice on the door, it will come to get you. Danny, of course, knocks twice. And then the demonic witch comes to get him. In terror, Chloe flees to her mother’s home—even though she had earlier brutally refused Jess’s plea that Chloe come live with her. But the witch pursues Chloe even to her mother’s house—and so Jess ends up fighting for her daughter’s life.

One of the strengths of Don’t Knock Twice is that the story, at several moments, doesn’t play out as you think it’s going to. There are some genuinely surprising twists. One of the weaknesses of the film, however, is that there are perhaps too many twists; the pacing is off, and it seems things always happen too soon, too suddenly. These twists, along with moments designed only for shock value, overwhelm the development of both character and story. Neither are fleshed out fully, and their depths remain untapped. And that includes not only the main characters of Chloe and Jess, but also a seemingly more minor character, Tira (Pooneh Hajimohammadi), who turns out to be much more important than she appears, and who is unfortunately given no backstory at all. (I’m hoping for a sequel about Tira!)

Despite its gaps in story and character development, What Don’t Knock Twice is clearly about is motherhood—and that’s one of the things that makes it so interesting.

The horror genre has always taken up motherhood, from the horrors of pregnancy (Rosemary’s Baby, It’s Alive, The Brood) to the long shadow cast in horror by the castrating mother (Psycho, Carrie). Recently, however, horror film has been taking up motherhood differently, more realistically. There have been a number of films that have looked at the relationship between mothers and children (mostly, but not exclusively, daughters); these films have insightfully represented the difficulties—the sacrifices—of mothering through horror imagery.

This attention to the realities of motherhood seems to have started with The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) and includes Lights Out (David Sandberg, 2016), The Monster (Bryan Bertino, 2016), and Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016).

In all four of these films, the “monster” or supernatural demonic force of the film seems an embodiment of the mother’s ambivalence and / or struggle with motherhood.

In Lights Out, for instance (a vastly underrated film), the demonic entity, “Diana,” is actually the incarnation of Sophie’s depression, a force that came between her and her children, as illustrated in the picture below. Indeed, “Diana” destroys all Sophie’s relationships, making it clear how difficult those relationships were for her as she struggled with mental illness.

The Monster focuses almost exclusively on the journey of a single night as Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to her father’s: she’s been struggling with motherhood as well as with substance abuse—and the brutally destructive “monster” they meet on the road embodies all the demons that prevent her from taking care of her daughter.

In all the films I mentioned above, dark monstrous shapes literally come between mother and child, threatening them, while also symbolizing the very real forces that pull them away from the caretaking role.

In Don’t Knock Twice (as in Lights Out and The Monster), those forces were so strong that they led to abandonment. Jess tells Chloe that she had “issues,” clearly about substance abuse, but it’s equally clear that Jess was ambitious in her calling as an artist and saw her child as an obstacle. Jess tells Chloe how much she has always loved her—and that seems true, but it’s equally true that Jess is also dedicated to her art and struggles to reconcile both passions. Her love for Chloe does not stop her from thinking about sending her away again (mere days after she arrives) when she thinks her daughter has destroyed her sculptures.

The demonic figures that proliferate in Don’t Knock Twice all seem, in some way, to be reflections of Jess—reflections of all mothers who struggle and who find themselves slipping into the capacious terrain of “bad” motherhood.

The most obvious double for Jess is the Baba Yaga, whose eastern European mythology is elaborated by Chloe. She’s a “dark mother,” the “most evil kind of demon,” who opens up the doorway between hell and the human world.

The screenshot above, which Chloe discovers as she does research on Baba Yaga dramatizes how Jess (herself a “dark mother”) is split, torn between the wildness of self—of what she may be capable of accomplishing—and the entrapping world of indoors, of motherhood and its responsibilities.

Indeed, the wild proliferation of “bad mother” figures in this film suggests the severity of Jess’s conflict, most beautifully realized in a moment in which Chloe looks with horror at a mirror and sees the reflection of Baba Yaga, and then Jess looks and sees only herself.

Don’t Knock Twice is, then, an intriguing entry in an emerging subgenre of horror that realistically gives dramatic and visual form to the demons that can haunt mother-child relationships.

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