For a simple spook story, this has a fairly complicated house of cards premise – which falls down and is put back together several times before All Is Revealed. Chloe (Lucy Boynton), raised in a care home, is terrified when a friend, Danny (Jordan Bolger), risks the wrath of an urban legend by knocking twice at the scary door of an old woman (Ania Marson) who committed suicide after the local kids took to blaming her for disappearances from the home … in Candyman style, this summons a spook (lanky Javier Botet) who drags Danny off into limbo and terrifies Chloe so much she seeks refuge in the rambling old mansion where her estranged mother Jess (Katee Sackhoff), an ex-junkie who has turned her life round and become a successful sculptress (of creepy sort-of-religious works) married to a banker (Richard Mylan) who fulfils the role of ‘unsupportive husband in a horror film’ by sneering at the supernatural (and artistic ambition) and going on a suspect ‘business trip’ so mother and daughter can be at the mercy of the long-limbed apparition. There is still more backstory to be trotted out about the dead old lady and the disappearances, with a persistent detective (Nick Moran) and an Eastern European model (Pooneh Hajmohammadi) filling Jess in on the criminal and supernatural mysteries she’s now trapped in.
The meat of the movie is on a currently often-used template (Under the Shadow, The Babadook, White Coffin, The Hallow, Mama) as a parent tries to protect a child from a supernatural menace which is also a parental rival – here, the spin is that the nearly-grown Chloe and the fragile Jess have to get past their own ton of baggage to unite against the monster …with both lead actresses quite affecting as complicated characters, though performances tend to get overwhelmed by a flurry of plot twists towards the end which are about 50-50 guessable/surprising but mean the situation see-saws so much that the scariness tends to be diluted. It has terrific monster design (courtesy the busy Dan Martin), evoking the Russian folkloric figure of Baba Yaga as an elongated, looming, oily creature – but the demon witch only gets standard jump-scare stuff to do and some of those ‘boo’ moments aren’t especially well-timed.
The settings – run-down estate with a single undemolished house amid ruins, rambling not-quite-restored country house – are interesting, but it’s a bit of a stretch to load so much mythic weight on the old knock-on-the-door-and-run-away game (aka Knock Down Ginger – which must have been an early script title since the scary old lady is nicknamed Ginger). It tries to do for doors what Candyman did for mirrors, with a silly sequence as the heroines remove and burn all the doors in the house – later, doors to a pub-cellar surprise them for a good shock, but this misses a trick by forgtting that a lot of other things (cars, cupboards) have doors. The secondary characters are all from stock, though in some cases this is deliberate misdirection – but a few too many ominous pronouncements from Moran or the gorgeous but overearnest Hajmohammadi get gigglesome.
Sackhoff, who has an interesting track record at being haunted (Oculus, Haunting in Connecticut 2, White Noise 2 The Light), works very hard in a fall gal role, and Boynton (a regular in the films of Oz Perkins) is winning despite being asked to sulk in most scenes. Weird coincidence department – the night after I saw this, I saw the Netflix council estate superhero movie iBOY, in which Jordan Bolger seems to be playing the same character – an amoral jerk called Danny who kicks off fantastical plots by being intensely dickish about something. Here, a vast supernatural scheme to entrap someone as slave to an immortal child-abducting demon depends on Danny being an idiot who invokes the curse he knows full well will get him and move on to his friends. Written by Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler (Howl); directed by Caradog James (The Machine).