Studio: XLrator Media
Director: Alistair Legrand
Writer: Alistair Legrand, Luke Harvis
Producer: Ross M. Dinerstein
Stars: Ali Larter, Arjun Gupta, Max Rose, Merrin Dungey, Chloe Perrin, Kurt Carley, Patrick Fischler, Wilmer Calderon, Thomas Wright
A single mother turns to her physicist boyfriend for help when a malevolent presence terrorizes her family in their home.
Madison Heller has her single mother hands full raising precocious daughter Haley, worrying when and not if the bank will foreclose on her home, and keeping troubled son Jake’s fists out of his classmates’ faces. As if that were not frustration enough, there’s also the life and death matter of bright light flashes randomly plaguing her home at all hours, bringing with them a disfigured presence who outstretches his fingers like claws while tearing at his face. As the encounters grow increasingly sinister, Madison turns to her scientist boyfriend to investigate the paranormal activity while they hopefully still have a chance to keep those insidious fingers from clasping around her children’s throats.
While that description may read like a typical setup for an ordinary ghost story, “The Diabolical” has an unexpected surprise in store for anyone settling in for straightforward supernatural thrills. Following two acts of levitating objects, reflected apparitions, and bumps in the night, “The Diabolical” reaches up its sleeve for a third act spike of portal-jumping paradoxes and secret scientific experiments. It is a nifty hook paving a path away from a standard storyline, although it comes with side effects that boomerang back to haunt the film’s full effectiveness like a shambling shape in the shadows.
The backstories behind the Heller family’s various troubles unfold in cutoff whispers. Characters consistently allude to events that occurred before the movie began, and just when the audience is about to be let in on an inference, someone puts a finger to the lips or another person unexpectedly interrupts the revelation. It is a maddening method of manifesting mystery, since the viewer spends a hefty chunk of time under a blindfold regarding the who and the why of the house’s horrific haunting.
Why is Madison so insistent on staying in the home in the first place, particularly when she has a buyout offer? What was the initial catalyst for the boy’s behavioral problems? How does the absentee father relate to events? With the family at the center initially possessing more information than the audience has, it can occasionally be difficult to sympathize with their torment when uncertainty lingers about their possible culpability in the whole supernatural affair.
Story beats are also structured on more than a few conveniences of timing. Parapsychologists fleeing from the terror peel out of the driveway just as the kids come home from school in time to ask, who was that? The same goes for the boyfriend arriving at the front door just as the uneasily smiling bank representative goes out the back. This is the same businessman who brings by a contract well outside of office hours only to conspicuously end up as ghost bait, too.
Other quick bits do more to prolong the runtime than they do to provide substantial subtext to relationships. Madison breaks up with her boyfriend so briefly that the moment amounts to little meaning. Joe Egender of “The Frankenstein Theory” (review here) and “Holy Ghost People” (review here) has a single scene of inconsequential value. Similarly unnecessary inclusions get in the momentum’s way, though like the concept itself, “The Diabolical” still has a card of key value ready to play in order to put its pace back on the right track.
“The Diabolical” intentionally bears more than a passing resemblance to the slow burning horror of Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Pact” (review here), with both films notably having been produced by Ross M. Dinerstein. And it isn’t just appearances by Patrick Fischler of “The Pact 2” (review here) or Mark Steger, who played Charles Barlow a.k.a. Judas in the first film, giving “The Diabolical” DNA akin to that of “The Pact.”
“The Diabolical” creates creeps through the same style of crawling camera movements and dread-draped undertones inherent in wood-paneled rooms of a Californian home where faces push past elastic wallpaper to bark out a boo. Some special effects are better at showing their digital seams than they are at selling a scare, such as whenever the malevolent presence materializes as a video glitch as though coming out a static-filled television screen. While those visuals can be unconvincing, “The Diabolical” is successful at crafting illusions through the cinematic subtlety it uses to establish atmosphere, which is a quality far more important than any other in a moody thriller of this type.
The time travel twist is destined to lose anyone aching for a purer distillation of haunted house horror. However, it is a bold dare of an idea that makes “The Diabolical” differ conceptually from its paranormal activity counterparts. Some pieces are forcibly put into place, but eeriness is established nevertheless, and the final picture put together by “The Diabolical” is one of a classically creepy chiller with a sleek streak of sci-fi suspense
Review Score: 75