The type of sporadically silly and patently predictable horror pic that would look like filler on Syfy’s weekend lineup, “The Other Side of the Door” brings virtually nothing new to the supernatural genre. Following an average white family living in India haunted by the ghost of a deceased offspring, Brit helmer Johannes Roberts’ first Hollywood release lacks the gore, chills or narrative momentum that might otherwise compensate for its deeply derivative material. Audiences will respond with a shrug, and a domestic opening just one week ahead of the similarly targeted franchise entry “10 Cloverfield Lane” won’t help.
When people talk about the need for more diversity on screen and behind the scenes in Hollywood, they’re not thinking about movies like “The Other Side of the Door” (mostly because no one thinks about movies like “The Other Side of the Door” beyond opening weekend). But here’s a perfect example of a film that squanders a unique setting and possibility for characters rarely seen on screen by focusing on people and plotting we’ve seen too many times before.
Young Americans Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Michael (Jeremy Sisto) are on vacation in India, where they decide to permanently relocate after discovering Maria is pregnant. Six years later, the couple grapples with the grief of losing their son, Oliver (Logan Creran), in a tragic accident, while continuing to raise their younger daughter, Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky).
Maria’s profound sense of guilt over Oliver’s death is revealed in a harrowing flashback (the film’s lone effective sequence) juxtaposed with an attempt to take her own life. While her actions shake Michael, they spark something else in housekeeper Piki (Suchitra Pillai). Having lost a child of her own and seeing Maria at the end of her rope, Piki shares the story of a remote Hindu temple where visitors can communicate with the dead to share their final goodbyes. The hitch: They can only converse a single time through the temple’s front door, and Piki warns Maria in no uncertain terms to keep the door shut, no matter what happens. It’s hardly a spoiler to say Maria has difficulty following instructions.
Instead, Oliver’s spirit follows Maria home to torment his father, sister and Piki, and the pic’s bloodless mayhem manifests in a hokey series of loud noises, jump scares, smash cuts and the requisite spooky use of a familiar song — in this case, the piano ditty “Heart and Soul.” (While the limited violence feels neutered in an effort to earn a PG-13 rating, the film is inexplicably rated R.) As if dealing with a pesky poltergeist weren’t enough, Roberts and co-scripter Ernest Riera toss in gratuitous use of an exotic Hindu sect known as the Aghoris, who linger around cremation grounds and stalk Maria seemingly wherever she goes — just one of the ways “The Other Side of the Door” proves about as culturally sensitive as a Donald Trump stump speech.
Although this is the rare major studio production both set and shot in India, Pillai’s Piki is the only Indian speaking role of significance, and the routine horrors that befall Maria’s family could have been set anywhere. With even a bare minimum of anthropological curiosity, Roberts might have uncovered a fresh angle for the story, but there’s no interest in mining the setting for anything other than exploitation — the beggar who startles Michael by knocking on his car window, the families living in cramped quarters where Maria gets lost looking for Lucy.
Callies, best known for her work on TV’s “The Walking Dead,” “Prison Break” and “Colony,” capably carries the action, investing her shallowly conceived role with more presence and backbone than it deserves. Sisto, on the other hand, is MIA for such long stretches his milquetoast husband barely registers. At certain points young Rosinsky seems to be mocking the movie from within, though her strangely disaffected line readings may simply be a result of Roberts trying to elicit an eerie child performance.
In the midst of a movie where almost every detail could be better, production designer David Bryan pulls off the minor miracle of an ideal horror-movie abode, complete with an open courtyard at the center and an attic bedroom perfectly suited for ritualistic sacrifice.