Like all the best horror, The Other Side of the Door is concerned not just with what freaks us out on a gut level, but the deeply-repressed anxieties that truly terrify us. There are lots of superficially scary things in The Other Side of the Door (ash-covered cannibals, ghost children, visions of cockroaches, and even a six-limbed god of death) but the true horror is the thought of killing your own child.
Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Michael (Jeremy Sisto) live in Mumbai with their daughter Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky), and they’re haunted by the memory of their other child, Oliver. As seen in flashback, Maria was driving alone with Lucy and Oliver when a crash sent their van careening off a bridge into water, knocking Lucy unconscious and trapping Oliver in his seat. Running out of time, Maria made a Sophie’s Choice, grabbing Lucy and swimming to the surface for help as Oliver drowned alone.
Needless to say, Maria isn’t handling the aftermath well. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Maria is given strange instructions by their housekeeper Piki (Suchitra Pillai-Malik): If she spreads Oliver’s ashes on the steps of an abandoned temple and locks herself inside, she’ll be able to speak with him one last time through the door. This will grant her a proper goodbye. The only catch is that she can’t open the door while Oliver’s there. But naturally, Maria is so overjoyed to hear her son’s voice again that, like Orpheus before her, she can’t resist one last look and desperately opens the door.
Nothing seems to happen at first, but when Maria returns home, things start getting stranger. Plants decay, animals die, religious zealots start gathering outside the house, and Oliver’s old toys start falling off shelves. For a while, Maria’s actions actually seem to take a greater toll on the family’s Indian neighbors and friends, which gets to the second great horror explored by The Other Side of the Door: imperialism. Although the specific magic worked by Maria doesn’t come out of Hindu mythology, it’s no accident that the film is set in India. The most populous country on earth spent nearly a century under the dominion of Great Britain, a tenure that left India divided and traumatized by its conclusion. A recurring motif throughout the movie, in fact, is The Jungle Book. It was Oliver’s favorite book, and his favorite toy is a plushie Shere Khan; its reappearance is periodically used to signal his ghostly presence. The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling was one of literature’s most infamous imperialists, going so far as to coin the term “white man’s burden” to paint the pillage of Africa and Asia as some kind of civic duty.
This connection is not a coincidence; it hovers just beneath the surface and grants greater resonance to Maria’s actions. Thinking only for herself, Maria recklessly throws the delicate Hindu cycle of death and reincarnation out of whack for her own selfish needs. The movie makes generous use of the classic horror technique of breaking long periods of silence with a sudden shock, but here, it’s used to underline Maria’s misunderstanding of the horrible thing she’s done. She’s terrified of the cannibals and their god because of their outwardly creepy appearance (faces smeared in ash, or covered with extra hands in the god’s case) but hardly bats an eye at her ghostly son, who remains invisible even as his actions grow more devious.
Like classic scary movies, imperialism spawned a lot of sequels; its effects linger to this day. The true horror of The Other Side of the Door is that Maria, too, has kicked off a vicious cycle of unnatural destruction, as the movie makes clear in its hard-hitting final punchline. B+