I was thinking, today, about how many great horror movies came out this year, usually virtually, and were still so effective despite not having the benefit of a darkened theatre and a captive audience. Films from Psycho Goreman to Skull: The Mask, to Lucky, to Titane, to Mad God, and Halloween Kills hasn’t even dropped yet! I got to thinking that some of the stuff I’ve seen this year that was good but not practically transcendent in the way that those titles are, may be left behind or even forgotten with such a loaded field. Frida Kempff’s Knocking feels like one of those films. It’s got a solid idea and an important theme about gaslighting, but it’s one that’s more inventively executed both in Brea Grant’s Lucky and Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist.
Knocking opens on an intriguing first shot. A beach, with a close-up shot of our protagonist Molly (Cecilia Milocco) lying on a beach, an arm seductively crawling over her. That moment of zen quickly breaks, though, as we see that this is a pleasant memory to which Molly clings as she lies, in the same position but in an entirely more crushing context, in a psychiatric ward. Molly has suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown, but she appeals to her caregivers that she’s ready to return to the world outside. Upon doing so, Molly finds herself in a new apartment with a friendly superintendent Peter (Krister Kern), and neighbors like Kaj (Ville Virtanen). Things seem to be looking up, but for the knocking. Every night, the incessant knocking sound from Molly’s ceiling worms into her brain. She canvasses her floor, then the whole building to determine the source of the sound but no one else seems to hear it. Soon, it’s all she can hear. Knock knock knocking on the ceiling that sounds increasingly like a cry for help and eventually turns into moans and pleading. With an already fragile mental state and no one at all around to talk to, Molly begins to crack.
Milocco’s performance is (literally) the centrepiece of Knocking, and much of Kempff’s film is focused on her, alone with her thoughts, imaginings, and growing paranoia in her apartment. Milocco puts the viewer right in Molly’s head as she tries to untangle the mystery of the knocking, and the frustration as she runs headlong into barrier after barrier of not being believed. Her performance is great, and when trying to portray a story that doesn’t feel very substantial, there’s a lot on her shoulders here.
Hannes Krantz’s cinematography is another standout feature of Knocking, even when the storytelling feels a little thin. Big sweeps and pans and unusual perspectives breathe life into what feel like well-worn Hitchcockian thriller tropes, sometimes making you feel as though you’re watching Molly from the perspective of the knocking itself. The colour palette, reds and browns, feel almost sickeningly lush when the first instinct might be to go in a more stark direction. It imbues Molly’s apartment with an otherworldly feeling, like an extension of her racing heart and furiously-working, desperate brain.
Ultimately, Knocking isn’t as horrifying to me as it is just sad. It’s a tale that’s packed to the gills with abject, crushing despair and doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with it. With a strong start that tapers off dramatically in it’s second half and never really pays off what it’s building towards, other than piling trauma on top of trauma onto it’s protagonist, it doesn’t quite work for me. In a way it feels like punching down a bit, with an already downtrodden lead character being subjected to even worse hardship. Misanthrope as I am, I can usually get down with a movie like that. But you’ve got to get up to get down, and the ‘getting up’ part just doesn’t seem to happen for Molly, or anywhere in Knocking. It’s a shame, because the horror of gaslighting and not being heard or believed is extremely real, but there are better films that take the idea further. Still, Kampff has produced a very good character piece here with a lot to like and plenty to be afraid of.