At The Devil's Door (2014)

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Directed by Nicholas McCarthy
Written by Nicholas McCarthy

Rated R

Catalina Sandino Moreno as Leigh
Naya Rivera as Vera
Ashley Rickards as Hannah
Tara Buck as Yolanda
Arshad Aslam as Seth
Colin Egglesfield as Dehn
Ava Acres as Girl

So far the year 2014 has been a dismal one for horror films. While I enjoyed last spring’s Oculus, summer offerings Deliver Us from Evil (dreadful) and As Above, So Below (effectively killing my desire to ever see a “found footage” film again) actually failed to deliver. Now comes the late-summer entry At the Devil’s Door, previously titled Home, which is a decent scare-fest. It’s not as good as Oculus, but it generates a sense of dread and suspense.

Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy scored with 2012’s The Pact, a well-received entry in the genre by horror enthusiasts (unseen, as yet, by me). The premise seems straightforward in this film, but McCarthy’s ideas can’t maintain the clarity of an ultimately effective horror film. But I applaud his efforts. I see where he’s going, attempting to make a terrifying thriller, without giving way to “found footage” pratfalls and torture porn blood and guts.

The film opens with young Hannah (Ashley Rickards) engaging in some very peculiar pillow talk with a boy, who is clearly a bad influence. He tells her she can will $500 by playing a game. The setting then moves to a dumpy trailer, where the boy’s trashy uncle (and an unidentified, apparently mute woman, who could compete in a beauty contest with the Tea Lady from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). New age spiritualists won’t like the negative connotations to pendulums: select the wrong one in a multiple choice game, and your soul has been sold to the devil. Hannah then finds herself instructed to take to the crossroads, in a clever tip of the hat to the old legend about this specific locale symbolizing soul-selling to Old Scratch.

McCarthy is clearly a student of horror films of the past, which is evidenced when Hannah is menaced by a frightening spirit, who eventually brutalizes her, à la Barbara Hershey’s many attacks in The Entity. This sequence is particularly creepy, a restrained and ominous sense of what’s to come. (There are few scenes depicting the physical identity of the evil presence, but when do appear, the images are quite chilling.)

We then move to a scene where ambitious, 29-year-old real estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno, the Oscar-nominated actress from 2004’s Maria Full of Grace) is planning to sell a destitute couple’s mysterious (haunted?) home. They happen to be the parents of a missing young girl (they call her Charlene), and we learn this is Hannah, who appeared in the house during Leigh’s walk-through. Hannah appeared in red coat, bright, shining, and symbolic -- and she quickly disappears (McCarthy borrowing here from Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant classic Don’t Look Now).

Again, there’s a shift in protagonists and tone, and Leigh’s artist sister Vera (Naya Rivera of television’s Glee) takes center stage. Trying to comprehend an inexplicable tragedy, Vera goes searching for answers. There’s the stock character who curiously possesses and divulges many answers, tying up many loose ends and inevitably raising more questions. It’s a believable scene, and Rivera ably takes over leading actress responsibilities from Moreno at this point. Bonus: Moreno and Rivera really do look like sisters, adding credibility to story and their characters’ bond (they’re adult orphans). To this end, McCarthy is again treading Don’t Look Now territory, examining grief as it manifests into nightmarish reality.

Ultimately, McCarthy can’t decide if he wants this film to be Don’t Look Now, an exorcism film (think The Exorcism of Emily Rose more than the dull Deliver Us from Us), or even -- wait for it -- Rosemary’s Baby (yep, this one received the remake treatment earlier this year, courtesy of a low-rated, critically panned NBC miniseries). We get it all in At the Devil’s Door, and for the most part, it’s a successful shockfest, not reliant on gore and the overused “found footage” nonsense that doomed last month’s As Above, So Below.

I am going to watch (and looking forward to) McCarthy’s The Pact. He’s a gifted filmmaker, a strong new voice for the horror film genre; and with At the Devil’s Door, he proves he is onto something.

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