When writer-director Nicholas McCarthy blazed a trail with his confidently creepy 2012 low-budget horror item The Pact—his first feature stretched from a ten-minute short he made—he conveyed an aptitude for building quiet dread and tension with enough restraint, even if the screenplay needed some work. (In an interview at SXSW, the filmmaker even admitted the process from writing to principal photography being rather quick.) McCarthy proved to have the talent to make a stronger second film without it being a sophomore slump and he doesn’t disprove that hypothesis with At the Devil’s Door (formerly titled Home). Nine times out of ten, a modern 666-themed horror movie leaves much to be desired compared to an earlier time when Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby knew how to execute a psychological horror story with a degree of subtlety. Even Prince of Darkness, one of John Carpenter’s more underrated horror works, sported a legitimately freaky vision and thoughtful ideas about theology. Then in the late ’90s-early ’00s, we had nonsensical, albeit admittedly entertaining, junk like End of Days and Bless the Child, as well as the dully schlocky Devil’s Due from last year. Not to bury the lead, but At the Devil’s Door is one of the good ones.
While vacationing in California, 17-year-old Hannah (Ashley Rickards) falls fast in love with a cute boy. He takes her to his uncle’s trailer in the desert and convinces her to play a game involving three cups and a smiley-faced button in exchange for an easy $500. At the end of the game, Hannah has been “chosen” as a vessel. When she returns home, her soul is officially sold to “the beast.” After some time has passed, take-charge 29-year-old real estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her sister Vera (Naya Rivera), a taciturn artist who lives in a studio loft, enter the picture. Leigh jumps on the chance to sell a couple’s house after their daughter ran away with a boy, but she notices an unwashable black ash around the door frames of one of the bedrooms and someone keeps hanging around the house. Something that was passed into Hannah might be looking for a new home.
Playing like a narrative triptych that passes the baton to a different protagonist, At the Devil’s Door averts expectations in never taking the anticipated route, while grabbing hold of the viewer from the very start and increasingly keeping one off balance. In fact, the most seasoned horror fan might never be confident in where it’s headed next. Simply told and without compromise, the film has a storytelling structure that almost reminds one of The Grudge (and by extension, its Japanese originator Ju-On), but that’s where the resemblance ends. This one has more thematic substance to it and takes relish in the unconventional idea that evil sometimes wins out; unfortunately for the characters but fortunately for us. We come to care about each of these young women, none of who are just pretty vessels walking into darkened homes and opening doors they should have left closed. That’s partly from the performances, which are surprisingly strong for a small horror film like this. Ashley Rickards (MTV’s Awkward.) is empathetic as the tortured Hannah who gets a raw deal. The scenes with her might have the most wicked memorability. Taking over, Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is fine with what she’s given, but as her screen time mostly fills the film’s middle section, she gets the “Jan Brady treatment.” As Leigh, she projects a loneliness and yearning to have children of her own if her body allowed it, as well as a warmth and love for her younger sister, who doesn’t share the same goals as her. Coming primarily from a TV background and fun to watch as sharp-tongued lesbian cheerleader Santana on Glee, the eye-grabbing Naya Rivera adjusts to the big screen with ease in front of the camera. Her Vera is headstrong and rigid but cut with just the right amount of vulnerability.
With the exception of a few pop-up jolts or times where the camera pushes in to reveal something in a mirror, At the Devil’s Door triggers its scares on beats we don’t always expect. It isn’t just an empty barrage of cheap, gimmicky scare moments every ten minutes. Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy is so deliciously astute in creating a heavy, chilly mood and conjuring up several indisputably creepy moments, whether it be from his placement of the camera or a reflection, an indelible image, or the tingly score and sound design (i.e. neck cracking and whispering are surprisingly effective) being employed. An early sequence in Hannah’s room with a pesky wardrobe closet during a stormy night is the stuff of nightmares, as is a twistedly unnerving one where she arrives in her red raincoat and new red sneakers to babysit for a sweet couple and then shows up outside the window at their party. And, since Mama, this is one of the more creative films to hair-raisingly reveal its antagonist in the background (or on a stretch of desert road) as a darkly indistinct but imposing figure without overexposure or a loud musical cue.
Classily executed and expertly shot with a clean, understated style, At the Devil’s Door fills one with dread and the pleasure that a horror film can be an emotionally visceral experience rather than a copy-and-paste job. Much more so than the average studio horror release, there’s a residual impact after it ends, and being fraught with the fear of sleeping alone at night won’t be out of the question. Like most films, this one is best left to go into completely cold and be led blindly down its insidious path.
At the Devil’s Door premiered on video-on-demand platforms today and will open in select theaters September 12th.