Director Frida Kempff delivers a simple yet powerful horror film about gas-lighting and processing grief in Knocking, her debut feature length film. Relying heavily on the lead performance by Cecilia Milocco, the actress depicts the horrors and frustration that comes when no one will listen, especially when you’re in your most vulnerable state.
Molly (played by Milocco) has just moved into a new, one bedroom apartment after a stay in a psychiatric following the tragic death of her girlfriend. The building is unremarkable and innocuous, populated by indifferent neighbors. As Molly tries to get her life back together, flashes of the day her girlfriend died keep cropping up. At the same time, a knocking sound from above interrupts her attempts to sleep. She questions everyone on the floor above her, and yet every night the knocking continues. Molly begins to hear a woman calling for help, and a mysterious red spot on her ceiling grows bigger every night, even after she cleans it. Yet at every turn, Molly is told she’s crazy, she’s mishearing things, and is dismissed outright, further driving her away from the normalcy she’s trying to get back to.
The concept of a mysterious knocking sound is a great example of auditory horror. It’s the perfect slow burn scenario, taking a somewhat annoying sound likely caused by inconsiderate neighbors and turning it into frustrating and dread-inducing paranoia. Taking this fairly common sound also means the film lends itself to a great atmospheric runtime, as most people, like myself, are probably watching it in their own apartments.
Plenty are familiar with not being taken seriously and our thoughts and fears undermined by others in order to discredit us and the truth. Kempff captures this feeling effectively with fascinating camera work and by placing us directly in Molly’s shoes as the paranoia overwhelms her and her neighbors refuse to help. Milocco is fantastic throughout the film, but it’s these increasingly manic scenes she shines best in, balancing Molly’s mental illness and her frustration with the lack of help. The film could easily have fallen into blaming mental illness for Molly’s situation, but even while it’s unclear what exactly is going on, Molly’s experiences are never lost to a diagnosis, allowing her to stay firm in her search for the truth.
The knocking starts off creepy but it never becomes the central element to be scared of. The horror lies in the indifference of the secondary characters while the knocking becomes an incessant question, asking us to listen. For the knocker, the horror comes when there’s no answer.
Don’t expect a rush to the finish, as the end gently unfolds with a reveal that could have landed with a larger impact. Still, Knocking manages to drive home the tragedy of the way we treat those with mental illness, writing them off as someone else’s problem.
Knocking premiered Jan. 29, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here.