Friday 11 March 2016

The Other Side of the Door

Director: Johannes Roberts
Writers: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Producers: Alexandre Aja, Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh
Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Suchitra Pillai
Country: UK/India
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: UK theatrical release

Let’s start this with a brief recap of Johannes Roberts’ career because I have seen (almost) all his films. His first couple of movies were jointly directed with James Eaves. Sanitarium is a medical horror which I actually first saw in its unreleased, longer cut as Diagnosis. It was later re-edited and had a framing story added featuring no less than spoon-bending con artist Uri Geller as a detective (and token name value). Then Jim and Jo made something called Alice which also got chopped up and retitled, seeing release as the unfathomable Hellbreeder.

Roberts' solo debut was Darkhunters, about supernatural detectives hunting a dead man. Then came Forest of the Damned (aka Demonic) in which some teenagers go to the woods and get attacked by fallen angels; this was the feature debut of both Eleanor James and Marysia Kay. And after that came the episodic phone serial When Evil Calls which was turned into a feature with the addition of linking scenes featuring Sir Sean Pertwee. If you want more detail on those five movies, they are discussed at length in my book Urban Terrors.

Jo was at a bit of a low ebb after When Evil Calls. When a reviewer sums up your film as “Fuck this movie” it’s difficult not to feel dispirited. (Although personally I preferred it to the formulaic Forest of the Damned, notwithstanding the latter has Ella and Marysia clambering around in the nude).

That was the first stage of Jo Roberts’ career. A few years later he re-emerged, re-energised, with the absolutely brilliant F which to my mind remains his best film. I love the way it takes the hoodie horror subgenre and does something different with it, balancing on the very edge of the supernatural, literally demonising young people. This was followed by a US cable movie, Roadkill, which is the one Johannes Roberts feature I haven’t seen. (On the other hand I have seen the obscure Dark Secrets, on which he was credited as executive producer. This was produced by Ernest Riera who had worked on Forest of the Damned and When Evil Calls. He has since directed the unreleased Forest of the Damned 2 and indeed is co-writer of this movie.) Then came Storage 24, a generic but fun monster-on-the-loose picture which was written, produced by and starred Noel Clarke.

Which brings us to The Other Side of the Door, a ghost story set in India. This is the big time: produced by Alexandre Aja (Switchblade Romance, Hills Have Eyes remake) and distributed by 20th Century Fox. Not sure what the budget was but this actually looks like a Hollywood movie. It was released on 330 screens in the UK and 550 in the States. The gulf between Other Side and Sanitarium is immeasurably vast but Jo Roberts has straddled it and that’s a huge achievement in itself.

So anyway, the story here is a fairly conventional Monkey’s Paw-style narrative with the Indian setting helping to both distinguish the movie within its subgenre and provide an otherworldly ambience for the characters and plot. Jeremy Sisto from Law and Order is Michael, an American antiques dealer sourcing items in Mumbai. Sarah Wayne Callis from The Walking Dead is his wife Maria. After a prologue, the film jumps ahead six years and it is at this point that Jo does an impressive show-don’t-tell job, letting us work out for ourselves that though they have a daughter now, they also used to have a son.

A little later we get to see how that son, Oliver, died. A road accident, a car in the river filling with water, Maria facing a Sophie’s choice of whether to save Oliver (whose leg is trapped) or his sister Lucy (who is unconscious). She saves Lucy but is understandably distraught at having had to abandon her screaming, terrified little boy and let him drown. This is a really, really harrowing sequence and very well shot, I can’t imagine what the health and safety issues are like when shooting a sequence with two very young actors and a lot of water.

Back in the main narrative, Lucy is fine but Maria is haunted by guilt. The family’s servant Piki (Suchitra Pillai from the Indian version of 24) has a solution. She knows of a temple in a distant part of India where, if you scatter the ashes of a loved one outside and wait for nightfall, they will come to you. Maria will be able to say goodbye to Oliver and tell him how much she loves him. But, Piki stresses, on no account must Maria open the door.

Well, I think we can all guess what’s going to happen…

To be completely fair to Maria, she only opens the door when she thinks that Oliver’s spirit has almost gone, but it’s enough and something has come through from ‘the other side’. Back home, Oliver makes his presence felt. At first Maria is delighted to be able to once again sit and read a bedtime story to her invisible son. Lucy realises that her brother has come back and is young enough to accept this, although her mother swears her to secrecy. Michael is off buying antiques and has no idea what has gone on. This is all very creepy although I can't help feeling that the film has played its hand too early. We're shown pretty much from the off that Oliver's ghost really is present, never getting the chance to experience any of the 'is it all in her head?' speculation that characterises many of the best ghost stories.

Gradually Oliver turns from darling boy to impudent child to evil spirit. Plants and animals start dying as he sucks the life from them. Without going into detail, things get worse and worse, deadlier and deadlier. Jo does a great job of twisting the knife, showing his years of horror film-making experience. The finale is genuinely shocking although the ‘twist’ epilogue seems kind of cheesy.

I certainly enjoyed The Other Side of the Door, as indeed I enjoyed Storage 24 (although I still think F beats them both). The cast are solid, including the kids: Sofia Rosinsky does a sterling job as Lucy, who becomes increasingly involved in the story as the film progresses. Logan Creran doesn’t have much to do as Oliver except appear in a few flashbacks or pop up towards the end with some prosthetic stuff on his face. Most of the time Oliver is a voice, provided by Jax Malcolm.

The production design by David Bryan (who used to design Big Cook, Little Cook!) is terrific. Everything is a set except for the exterior of the couple’s home which is actually the house where Rudyard Kipling was born. Aja provided his regular DP Maxime Alexandre who does a cracking job. This is a good, solid cinematic ghost story. Commendably, the script, design and direction use the Indian setting without patronising or stereotyping. Although this is very much a Western view of India; you couldn't mistake this for a genuine basmati horror like Bhoot or Hawa. (One thing that is a little regrettable: among all the stills released by Fox's publicity people, I can't find a single one of Suchitra Pillai.)

But – and it’s a but I don’t like having to admit – the one thing that the film isn’t… is scary. As a supernatural drama it’s top-notch stuff, but as actual horror, as an example of a film genre defined by the emotion it creates in the audience, I found that emotion curiously absent. I empathised with the characters, I loved the creepy atmosphere, I liked the way that Oliver’s character changes, I enjoyed the special effects thing that has also been unleashed, I really felt involved in the heart-wrenching climax. But I wasn’t actually ever frightened. (Except, a bit I guess, when the car is filling with water.)

And this isn’t because I watch a lot of horror films. I can still be scared. Anyway, who the hell is a film like this aimed at if it’s not people who watch horror films.

The problem lies fairly and squarely with the soundtrack. The film is scored by Joseph Bishara whose other credits include the Night of the Demons remake and all three Insidious films. He is evidently one of those composers who believes that anything scary in a horror film should be emphasised with a big, crashing chord. And this is just a huge bugbear with me.

Because not only is that a massive cliché, it’s actually self-defeating. Bishara’s determination to match every shocking or disturbing image with an orchestral music sting robs those images of their ability to shock and disturb. His music detracts when it should (and thinks it is) be emphasising.

Here’s the nuts and bolts. A sudden noise will always make people jump. That’s an instinctive reaction. Human beings are programmed to jump at a sudden noise, as are most mammals that aren’t apex predators. It’s how our ancestors avoided being eaten. On the cinema screen, it doesn’t matter a wit what you show when that chord crashes. If we’re looking at a film of a spring meadow and a butterfly comes into view, accompanied by a thunderous orchestral blast, we will jump.

In a horror film like this, our instinctive reaction to the sound means that we don’t get a chance to react to the image. And it’s the image that should be scaring us. Effective horror scores counterpoint the imagery or even ignore it – and that’s what make the imagery scary. Music that doesn’t acknowledge the scary image says, “Did you notice this? Whoa, what was that? Did you really see that? Holy cow, what is going on? Now you’re really worried, aren’t you?” But music like Joseph Bishara’s score for The Other Side of the Door just beats us over the head, yelling, “Look! Look at this! See the scary thing! Do you see it? Do you? Do you?!” By the time we’ve recovered our wits, the scary thing has either disappeared off screen or simply isn’t scary any more.

There are a bunch of moments in The Other Side of the Door which could have been really, really terrifying but the lumbering behemoth that is Bushara’s music robs them of their power and that’s a real shame. It neuters the horror and undoes the director’s hard work.

That’s my main beef. Aside from that: yeah, I enjoyed the film and I think you will too. What’s interesting is to compare and contrast this with F, since both deal with a parent/child relationship. In some ways they are opposites: in F the outside force is a wedge pushing the generations apart, in Other Side the outside force binds them together when they should have separated. But in both films a parent is trying desperately to cling on, in defiance of reality, to a lost relationship with a child.

What has happened inbetween, which may have exerted an influence on Roberts’ oeuvre, is that Jo has become a dad himself. His Instagram account is full of photos of Ludwig Roberts (aka ‘Earwig’) who is a little cutie and no mistake. So perhaps F can be read, if one is in a film studies mood, as being about Johannes Roberts’ relationship with his father while Other Side reflects his own newfound status as parent of a small child. Except of course this film was shot in 2014 before Earwig was born. Nevertheless, fatherhood – including impending fatherhood – changes one’s attitude. It can’t have been easy overseeing post-production on a film about a parent losing a child when you’ve suddenly got one yourself. (It’s also interesting to note that the last British horror film made in India, The Dead 2, was also about parenthood. Is there a subtext somewhere that equates post-imperialism with paternalism?)

One final thing. About four years ago, back in May 2012 – when Earwig was just a twinkle in his father’s eye – Jo Roberts was looking for some feedback on a treatment he had knocked together for something called The Door. I’ve met Jo a few times and we’ve corresponded over the years so I offered to take a look, had a read and sent back some detailed notes.

The treatment, which Jo freely admitted was “very off the cuff and rambling and not finished” contains the kernel of what would become The Other Side of the Door. The couple are British not American and they don’t have a daughter. In this first pass at the story the mother saves a little Indian girl from being hit by a car then finds that the same car has knocked down and killed Oliver. It’s the father of the girl, rather than a servant, who tells her about the temple. Once Oliver’s spirit is home, the story develops differently with more emphasis on doors as a motif. The other side of Oliver’s bedroom door becomes as significant as the other side of the temple door. The mum brings Oliver back each night by scattering ashes inside his bedroom and finds footprints in them in the morning. There is also stuff about other spirits trying to trick their way through by pretending to be Oliver, which would have been nice to keep.

Frustratingly, although I have Jo’s treatment and his reply to my feedback (“I think you really hit the nail on the head. I’m going to start to work and reform the treatment over the next few weeks – this has been super helpful!”), I no longer have the actual notes I put together and sent. So I have no idea whether any of my suggestions ended up in the finished film. But until I eventually get my own feature writing credit somewhere, it’s nice to know that I was able to help, in some small way, with the very early stages of this one.

Since completing Other Side, which was all shot in India, Jo has spent a couple of months in the Dominican Republic shooting his underwater epic 47 Metres Down. He and Ernest Riera have also sold a script called The Pool, touted as ‘Cujo in a swimming pool’ which Paul Hyett is attached to direct.

This film was originally announced for a late February release but got bumped by a week to early March so that it could premiere at Glasgow Frightfest (where Paul H showed some early footage from Heretiks). Some Pacific Rim territories retained the earlier date so, if the IMDb is correct (it could happen one day) the first people to see this were audiences in Indonesia and the Philippines.

MJS rating: B+


  1. I pretty much agree with you on this. I'm pleased I saw it at the cinema (I was, of course, the only one in the place but it was a 10am showing so...) because the production values are pretty good - it looks stunning. The opening scenes, with the 'Mumbai' title, reminded me of the start of a James Bond movie though. For a while I honestly thought I was watching the work of another director called Johannes Roberts. Does he know where certain bodies are buried to attract such funding I wonder?

    1. Thanks for your comment David. I don't think there's any secret to Jo's current career status except sheer hard work. He's been plugging away at the film lark for many years, weathered some low points and not given up.