Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Nicholas McCarthy
Writer: Nicholas McCarthy
Producer: Sonny Mallhi
Stars: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera, Ashley Rickards, Ava Acres, Michael Massee, Wyatt Russell, Nick Eversman, Tara Buck, Olivia Crocicchia, Jennifer Aspen, Daniel Roebuck
A demonic pact holds fatal consequences across two timelines for three women haunted by an irrepressibly evil presence.
Having greatly admired writer/director Nicholas McCarthy’s 2012 feature film debut “The Pact” (review here), his second effort “At the Devil’s Door” topped my list of most anticipated films at SXSW 2014, where it premiered under the title “Home.” With “The Pact” two years removed from immediate memory, exact details of its story were hazy, yet how effectively it executed a slowly dripping sense of pervasive eeriness remained hauntingly vivid.
Not long into the screening, I had a flash of déjà vu not that McCarthy was being redundant or plagiarizing himself, but that “At the Devil’s Door” was intentionally running its finger across the same mental and emotional touchstones I remembered from “The Pact.” Recalling that talk of a sequel had been bandied about, I scribbled a reminder to investigate if “At the Devil’s Door” had in fact started as a follow-up to the 2012 thriller since it felt so similar, and then put my notebook aside for the remainder of the show. I realized that to properly review the film, I would have to first revisit “The Pact” in order to see precisely how the two films flowed progressively into one another.
Several months later, IFC Midnight prepared “Home” for distribution as “At the Devil’s Door,” and I had an opportunity to give it a second go, this time only a few weeks removed from another viewing of “The Pact.” What I can now say for certain is that looking at both movies side by side makes a concise evaluation simple. Those who fell into the camp of finding “The Pact” too cerebral or too sluggish with its pacing will encounter similar irritation in “At the Devil’s Door.” On the flip side of that token, those who still cannot shake the sickly feeling of evil crawling on the underside of the skin left by “The Pact” will find “At the Devil’s Door” lingering long in the mind in a suitably similar way.
Not only are the two films stylistically alike, but both also draw from the same thematic well of fractured families and sinister secrets buried in the past. Whereas “The Pact” fused haunted house ghost story with serial killer thriller, “At the Devil’s Door” takes that same ghostly haunter bucket and fills it instead with a combination of satanic soul selling and a demonic pregnancy.
In 1987, 17-year-old Hannah falls for a boy who tells the smitten girl of an unusual way she can make an easy $500. Since she doesn’t believe in spiritual mumbo jumbo anyway, Hannah is convinced to play a game with a trailer-dwelling gypsy man that ends with him giving Hannah a roll of cash and Hannah speaking her name aloud at a crossroads so that “He” will know who to look for when he comes. This opens a devilish doorway that starts with a possession, ends with a suicide, and includes all manner of frightening poltergeist experiences in between.
Flash forward to the present where real estate agent Leigh has the task of selling the house where the young girl once stayed. Unbeknownst to Leigh, the entity unwittingly summoned by Hannah is still present inside the home. When it comes for Leigh next, her artist sister Vera is left as the only one standing who can solve the mystery of how these stories intersect, and what exactly it is that the demon wants of all three women.
“At the Devil’s Door” unfolds over both timelines in a nonlinear fashion, giving an otherwise straightforward plot a creative edge to keep viewers from straying too far ahead. Jumping across three strongly actualized heroines, the story itself is primarily secondary to an emphasis on a dreadful atmosphere of nerve rattling tension achieved through means that are somehow difficult to accurately articulate.
Director McCarthy and his D.P. Bridger Nielson are guilty of indulging in a multitude of filler shots that advance neither the mood nor the narrative. Raindrops wipe off a windshield in a close-up. One character chops vegetables and is shown being indecisive in a grocery store line. At worst, such depictions of ho-hum daily routines flip the attention span switch to off for viewers without the patience to outlast the payoff. At best, it seems that what the film might really be doing with such mundane moments is grounding its reality in a relatable monotone that makes its jump scare jolts land that much harder.
While “At the Devil’s Door” has those heart-pounding flashes, its deeper success is in teasing mental agony over what the camera might be creeping towards, or what lurks on the other side of a door. McCarthy and Nielson equally love leaning on lingering shots of open doors with only darkness inside. The true terror they evoke comes from tensing over what could happen in that shadow, even if nothing ultimately does. That is a feeling that frustrates those who respond more favorably to blood-soaked slashes, but delights anyone with an uncontrollable imagination fueled by unfettered fear of the unknown.
“At the Devil’s Door” is Nicholas McCarthy’s heir apparent to “The Pact” in much the same manner as “Oculus” (review here) logically extends Mike Flanagan’s “Absentia” (review here) and “The Innkeepers” succeeds Ti West’s “House of the Devil” in comparable tone. All three filmmakers have established themselves as top contemporary practitioners of the slow burn chiller, with “At the Devil’s Door” settling firmly into McCarthy’s corner of that triangle. If the psychological suspense of any of these aforementioned movies scratch that nervous itch of terrifying tension with a pointed nail, it is virtually assured that “At the Devil’s Door” will crawl inside the psyche with equal amounts of fear, fright, and an unshakable sense of inescapable evil.
Review Score: 75