Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Other Side of the Door (2016)

Mumbai-based antiques dealers Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Michael (Jeremy Sisto) have lost their little son Oliver (Logan Creran), leaving particularly Maria desperately bereft. Given what we see of Michael during the course of the movie, I suspect he’s just too clueless to be hit quite as deeply as Maria is. They have another, younger child, Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky), too, but her care seems more to lie in the hands of housekeeper Piki (Suchitrya Pillai-Malik) now.

When Maria attempts suicide, Piki, who also lost a child once, tells her of a ruined temple near her home village where the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin. There’s a ritual consisting of spreading the ashes of a deceased loved one on the temple steps, and locking oneself inside the place which is supposed to provide one with the opportunity to say one final goodbye through the closed temple doors. Of course, as Piki and any good folk tale will tell you, opening the temple door during the ritual can only lead to terrible things.

Convinced there’s no other way for her to find closure and be there again with the living she loves, Maria follows Piki’s suggestion. Of course, she will not leave that door closed, and so the spirit of Oliver will follow her home. At first, things seem well enough, with Oliver acting benignly, but the longer the spirit stays at his old home, the more aggressive and outright evil it becomes. Then there’s also the little thing with the Aghori who take quite an interest in Maria’s business, and the guardian of the underworld Myrtu (Javier Botet) who will go through creepy lengths to get Oliver’s spirit back where it belongs. While Maria suffers, Michael, is generally either absent or absurdly unaware of the things going on around him.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m very happy with Callies’s Maria being the central character but in the end, Michael feels more like a plot device than a person, apart from one scene early on meant to suggest much of his cluelessness is part of his method for keeping his grief at a distance.

For most of its running time, I was positively surprised by Johannes Roberts’s The Other Side of the Door. To my eyes, Roberts has always been one of these directors obviously able to make decent genre fodder who very much seems to have it in him to one day make a film that’s going beyond being entertaining and fun. He’s not quite there yet, but this one’s really close, I think.

At first, The Other Side threatens to dive into your usual jump scare-o-rama, but much of the film’s running time is devoted to effectively and cleverly using the supernatural to speak about the pain coming with the loss of a child. Sure, there’s some shouting boo now and then, but that’s only one part of a broader idea of how horror works in a film that does some good work connecting the inner life of its main character with the outward threat. Roberts also makes good use of the basic visual difference the Indian setting of the film provides it compared to many mainstream horror films and their fixation on the US suburbs. It’s not without a few somewhat troubling moments that exoticize India too much – the misuse of the Aghori being the most egregious example – but mostly, this isn’t a film trying to portray the country as a metaphor instead of a place.

There are, alas, the film’s final twenty minutes or so, which suddenly feel the need to throw quite a few random 21st Century mainstream horror clichés at the audience to make the ending more generically “exciting” instead of fitting it to the more low-key tone of the rest of the proceedings. At least, Roberts uses the usual stuff competently, and it never gets so overwhelmingly bad it ruins the film; it does drag it down from being excellent and of one piece to merely good, though.

I can hardly end this write up without mentioning Sarah Wayne Callies’s wonderful performance. She portrays Maria’s desperation and loss as well as the love these feelings come from without letting things become melodramatic, and goes through the horror sequences with the dignity of someone who isn’t afraid to look silly. Nice to see her not wasted on the role of The Wife, the horrible destiny mandated by Hollywood for most women over 25.

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