At the Devil’s Door (2014, dir. Nicholas McCarthy)
A teenage girl caught up in a new relationship plays a dark game where she barters away her soul. Decades later, Leigh, a real estate agent gets a new property with a dark history. At the same time, her angsty younger sister Vera is busy at work on her upcoming gallery show. Woven throughout these women’s lives is a demonic presence that seeks to use one of them to bring itself into the world through a vessel. Where this story ends up is surprising and how it gets there can be incredibly frustrating.
The work I saw from director Nicholas McCarthy was his 2011 short film The Pact and then his subsequent feature film adaptation of that short. I was very impressed with the surprising direction that movie took, the way it subverts audience expectations while telling a story from multiple perspectives. McCarthy’s most recent work was the Easter short in the Holidays anthology which was one of the more enjoyable pieces in that incredibly flawed collection.
At the Devil’s Door is an interesting concept that ultimately fails in its execution and commits the worst crime a horror film can: it’s so boring. Conceptually we have a very ambiguous demonic possession story that doesn’t hit all the familiar tropes. There were moments where I was genuinely hooked and the film did a great job reeling me in, only to plod on with dull and shallow characters for the next 20 minutes. The idea of a fragmented narrative could work in the film, but it’s handled in a confusion and ultimately distancing manner. We never get enough of a sense of who any of these characters are so it’s hard to care. I saw a comment that summed it up, this is a trilogy that has been compressed into one film. As a novel with the ability to get have an omniscient narrator the story would be something I’d eat up. It just fails as a film.
The positives are that McCarthy knows how to frame a shot. He loves to evoke and build atmosphere and the film is dripping with it. The atmosphere just doesn’t have a strong enough plot to take it anywhere. McCarthy has a love of suburban homes and lights them in ways that play up the creepiness of hallways and bedroom corners. The demon is very obscured and we get two glimpses of it throughout that are masterful. Once it is in the background, out of focus and the second is a quick glimpse as it hides in a cabinet. The design isn’t what you would expect.
At the Devil’s door biggest problem is that it doesn’t understand how to make a good ambiguous horror film. You need details in the world while the horror is kept ambiguous when you don’t have those world and character details the story never feels alive.