Mental illness is the backbone of the horror genre. From penny dreadfuls and the eerie short stories about “madness” like The Yellow Wallpaper to seminal works like To The Lighthouse and films such as Jacob’s Ladder and Relic, the fragility and malleability of the mind is a fertile ground in which to grow fear, confusion, and panic. But what about when the “madness” isn’t quite so “mad”? Welcome to the very common experience of women who are mentally ill, abused, or otherwise manipulated by others through gaslighting, which is showcased brilliantly in Frida Kempff’s debut film Knocking.
Shot in only 18 days on an ultra-low budget (in a Q&A Kempff mentions that the DOP actually made the camera rigs himself out of things in his house because they couldn’t afford to buy or rent “proper” rigs elsewhere) Knocking follows Molly (Cecilia Milocco), a newly released psych ward patient after a year of treatment (for what, we don’t know). As she moves on and settles into her new apartment, alone, she begins to hear a knocking; an incessant morse-code like knocking accompanied by a woman’s screams and black stains emanating from the upper level of her apartment complex. No matter how hard she tries to get to the bottom of what’s happening, the almost all male and all seemingly socially interconnected neighbors of hers are at intervals unhelpful, unkind, and extremely psychologically manipulative. As the knocks and screams become more and more frequent, it becomes a matter of who will break first: the men, or her sanity.
Milocco’s performance is the heart and soul of this film. With 90% of the narrative being from her isolated point of view, or her memories and nightmares, Knocking is more one-woman Victorian era theatre than modern psychological thriller, and this is meant in the best way possible. Every glance, movement, and change in vocal pitch feels important and purposeful, all blending to give us incredible insight to Molly’s feelings and anxieties, especially in the face of being gaslit when we as an audience know that the things she is seeing and hearing are verifiably real. It is so deeply, infuriatingly frustrating to watch, particularly as a female identifying person. She is told time and time again that every little fucking thing around her is a lie, even things as brazen as a man coming into her apartment under the pretense of putting a name plate on her door which 1) he absolutely should have already done, and 2) why the hell would he need to be inside for that? It’s slimy, violating, and makes one even more concerned for both Molly and the invisible woman suffering somewhere up above; because either the men are driving her purposefully into another psychotic break or, worse still, are all active accomplices in the torture of another woman. Because there is no way in hell that nobody else would hear the sounds echoing through the walls and vents of an apartment so rickety that manic scribblings on a wall fit right into the existing oppressive atmosphere.
The technical foibles are minor, and almost all easily explained by the low budget, and especially the jury-rigged equipment, making them very forgivable. The most obvious being the chest cam rig wobble most commonly seen in found footage. However, when it does happen it’s usually brief and beyond that the majority of effects are practical and excellently done.
If you’re looking for a new, deeper more intimate vantage point on the mental health genre, you won’t find a better new offering than Knocking.
Images courtesy of Sundance Institute