There’s no horror like political horror, and “Knocking” is no exception. Director Frida Kempff’s (“Winter Buoy”) debut feature is a chilling exploration of mental health, trauma and misogyny. Molly, played by Cecilia Milocco (“The Circle”), has recently moved into a new apartment when she begins to hear a persistent — you guessed it — knocking. The film follows her as she attempts to solve the mystery of the noises in her ceiling. Is she the only one who can hear it? Is it real? Are people lying to her? Just as Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” spoke to class consciousness on a universal level, rest assured that watching “Knocking” in Swedish is no detriment to its ability to strike at bare-bones human fears.
It’s not the most subtle message ever. Reading the synopsis on the Sundance website made me feel a little bit like it was created from an algorithm that found that the phrases “mental health” and “gaslighting” were getting the most clicks online. Then again, it’s not the most egregious thing ever either, and if misogyny isn’t subtle, then maybe art that talks about it doesn’t have to be either. In the director’s introduction that played shortly before the film started, Kempff simply said, “We knew that whatever choice we made, we had to be bold.”
While I’ve never experienced the Sundance Film Festival before, in-person or remote, I was a bit wary about how “pure” the screening could be when I could just turn on my bedside lamp when I got too scared — and I got scared a good amount of times.
So whether you’re looking for frights or social commentary, Kempff has you covered. But actually, I think watching this film at home enhanced the experience. Hearing my floorboards creak and my neighbors arguing with each other upstairs made me feel like I was on one of those 4-D rides at the Detroit Zoo. You know, where they have a machine jerk your chair around so you feel like you’re riding a dinosaur? Watching “Knocking” when you’re a woman living alone during a pandemic is like a similarly budgeted, but higher quality, 4-D ride at the zoo.
Some viewers might find its pacing frustrating, but if you lean into it, it’s actually one of its major strengths. At just 78 minutes long, you might think that it’d try to cram as much action as possible into its runtime, but its self-restraint is admirable. I knew I was watching a horror movie, so I started out with my shoulders in my ears, just waiting for something awful to happen. Then it coaxed me into complacency as the beginning lull kept rolling, as Molly buys groceries, smokes cigarettes on her balcony and tries to cool off in a heatwave. It doesn’t rely on jump scares, instead letting the isolation and quiet slowly drive screws into your spine.
The setting is well-used, too. It’s not a home invasion, nor is it a haunted house/apartment type of film, but it still has such an eerie feel nonetheless. Even though Molly doesn’t experience domestic abuse firsthand, the understanding that the home is one of the most dangerous and violent places for a woman sat heavy in my head as I was watching.
I couldn’t help but think about how women are more likely to be killed by brothers and lovers than by strangers. There’s a reason why we love the final girl trope so much, why we eagerly follow women through haunted houses. Fittingly, the men in this film are terrifying. “Knocking” feels like a moral struggle; Molly goes to check on her neighbors and insists on making sure that there is no madwoman in the attic knocking on the floor, desperate to ensure everyone’s safety.
It feels like a tribute to Kitty Genovese, the girl whose 1964 murder lives on as evidence of the bystander effect. Kitty was stabbed just outside a crowded apartment building, where it’s said that every tenant must have heard her screams for help, but no one came to her rescue. They all assumed that someone else would check on her or call 911. As I was watching this film, it felt like Molly, who from the beginning is shown to have experienced some recent trauma, was trying desperately to save the life of any possible Kitty Genovese that might need her help.
That feminine agency is integral to the film. I wondered why Molly kept referring to the banging, thumping sound as knocking. I realized that knocking is inherently active rather than passive: a call for attention, asking someone to answer the door.
You can take whatever you want from “Knocking,” whether it is believing women, treating mental health seriously or simply enjoying it for what it is with no deeper meaning. But first, you have to open the door.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.