Frida Kempff’s “Knocking” opens with an alluring hook: a foreboding overhead shot of a busy beach that all but screams, “Someone is watching, and they ain’t good!,” Molly (Cecilia Milocco) is napping on a blanket, unknowingly enjoying her last moment of peace as her girlfriend takes a plunge in the glimmering water. Then, a scream. Kempff’s film gets under the audience’s skin almost immediately, but that early power diminishes over the course of a slim 78-minute movie that, amusingly enough, given its gaslighting bent, never seems to understand its own strengths.
When we next meet Molly, she’s emerging from a psychiatric ward after a prolonged stay. Details of what happened on the beach are unnecessary, but Kempff continually cuts back to that seminal day. Milocco’s performance is strong enough that the audience already understands Molly’s frailty; she’s haunted by something as she re-enters the world.
A (purposely) grating score overlays what seem to be ordinary scenarios, making a train trip feel queasy and wrong. Molly attempts to nest in an apartment on the outskirts of a nameless city; the place has big windows and a clean balcony from which she can survey the world around her. The superintendent seems obliging, and the constant calls from her doctor are grounding.
There’s just one problem: the knocking. It’s the sort of annoying, distant noise familiar to apartment dwellers, a rhythmic clatter coming from the ceiling. Coupled with the heatwave consuming the country, Molly can’t seem to get comfortable. Other weird portents pile up, from the strange neighbors who promise they’re not doing the knocking to the creepy stains that seep through the ceiling. Then there’s the screaming she hears in her bathroom, phone calls in which no one speaks, and a bottle of absinthe that appears to haunt her.
Molly is quick to rattle. A couple of days into the knocking and she’s already boning up on Morse code, in hopes of finding a message. Molly seems to need to help someone, or something. As her memories overtake her, Kempff repeatedly drives home the why: She couldn’t help the person she loved. We get it, and Kempf keeps reminding us in case we don’t.
A woman who’s in pain, rooted in real trauma, lies at the heart of recent horror classics like “The Babadook,” “The Nightingale,” “Midsommar,” and “Swallow.” “Knocking” makes an early bid to join their ranks, but it grows less compelling and creepy as it winds on. There’s more odd twists with no real purpose, Molly finds herself in outsized scrapes that dilute tension, and its final 10 minutes contain bizarre bits of narrative nonsense that tie everything in a tidy bundle without answering the film’s key questions.
Few contemporary horror films start this strong to end so poorly, and with such a lack of ease. Molly deserves answers, but “Knocking” forgets what the questions were in the first place. It’s enough to make anyone, especially the audience, question the reality of what’s unfolding before them.
“Knocking” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.