Dir: Johannes Roberts
Starr: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Sofia Rosinsky
Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 8)
The Other Side of the Door is a nearly successful supernatural chiller that gives a strong indication of where the future may lie for the British film industry. It is the kind of classily mounted low-budget venture that Hammer made a killing from. Unlike Hammer, however, Rory Aitken and Ben Pugh’s production company 42 are looking toward the Indian subcontinent as a production partner, whilst simultaneously maintaining strong links with the Hollywood Studio system.
42 was announced with some degree of fanfare back in 2013. They were to operate as a production company cum talent agency, representing the likes of Rhys Ifans and Michael Caine, as well as looking to produce mid-range commercial genre fare like Welcome to the Punch (2013). Working alongside Rakesh Mehra’s Kriti Productions (who helped produce Asif Kapadia’s breakthrough work The Warrior (2001) they have put together a rather modern work of horror, set in India, with some location shooting taking place at the former residence of author and poet Rudyard Kipling – whose The Jungle Book is featured prominently as a plot device within the film. The influential VP of Fox International Pictures, Anna Kokourina, is the Hollywood production partner. The film features familiar faces with a television profile, Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) and Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under, Suburgatory). In genre terms it is also important to note the presence among the producers of Alexandre Aja, director of the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Maniac (2012). It is safe to say that Aja has had a very hands-on role in the production, as not only does his production partner Justine Raczkiewicz feature as a co-producer, but cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and editor Baxter are both Aja regulars.
English director Johannes Roberts, who worked on the intense F (2010), initially handles the material here with a deft and subtle touch. The audience is introduced to Maria (Callies) and Michael (Sisto) during a blissful, sun-kissed Mumbai marriage proposal sequence, that swiftly reveals itself to be a dreadful nightmare. Michael has relocated the family to India to pursue a career in rare antiquities. The couple’s young daughter Lucy (a delightfully impish Sofia Rosinsky) is doted upon by her father, on the rare occasions he is home. Maria seems to be a little colder with her daughter and entrusts most of her care to the Indian maid Piki (played by Indian television personality Suchitra Pillai). Gradually, Roberts and his regular writing partner Ernest Riera, unfurl the complicating factor within this series of relationships. Audaciously they have chosen to examine a kind of Sophie’s Choice source of trauma, in which a mother has had to choose between saving one of her children and letting the other one die. The guilt of her inability to save her son Oliver (Logan Creran) is what dominates Maria’s thoughts, creating distance between herself and the daughter who survived, as well as the husband who wasn’t there when she needed him.
If the film had continued to mine this seam of loss and trauma then The Other Side of the Door could have been a very effective psychological drama, particularly considering Roberts’ facility for creating tension out of the alienating and disorienting ‘otherness’ of Mumbai. The film’s move toward the more familiar spectral hokum of Del Toro is an unfortunate progression. Unnerving child presences, poltergeist-like activity, the objects of a lost childhood (the stuffed toy tiger), J-Horror inspired demonic figures, all of these are blended together in an increasingly preposterous climax to the film, that even manages to foreground Sisto’s Michael, despite the fact this character has barely featured at all in the rest of the movie.
Yet even in such magpie messiness The Other Side of the Door manages to come up with real moments of poignancy and baroque horror. Maria is told by Piki of a temple near her home village where “It is said that the line between the world of the dead and the living is very thin in this place”. Roberts follows up this conversation with a beautiful window shot that shows Maria enclosed within the shadowy domestic space of haunting memories, whilst reflected against the window pane is the blurred frame of her daughter, playing with their pet dog in the sunshine. This occasional visual succinctness is a strength that better producers may have fostered more effectively in Roberts. Later, when Maria approaches the temple she first journeys through a lush forest that is straight out of a fairytale, before coming across the skeletal trees, dead animals and disturbingly pregnant silence that surrounds this holy site. The sound design at this moment actually makes so much of so very little, with the initial silence of the temple being a forceful presence of its own.
There is an irresistible pull toward exoticism for any non-Indian filmmaker operating within the subcontinent and Roberts’ use of the Aghori sadhus as a ghoulish expression of Indian spiritual ‘otherness’ is perhaps the most exploitative aspect of the film. The encroaching menace of these painted figures provides the film with the majority of its cheap shocks and jolts. By comparison the simple use of a pet animal staring off camera is far more effectively chilling and has none of the problematic cultural misreadings. As the film strains for its concluding sacrifice it also falls foul of that old chestnut of the martyred woman, with Maria’s increasing mental instability making her more reminiscent of Victorian gothic females, than the more compellingly complex and modern trauma victim she had at first seemed. The film may have benefited more from adhering to the restrained and chilling claustrophobia of The Innocents (1961) than indulging in the mannered CGI shocks of The Orphanage (2007).