Following in the recent trend of The Babadook (2014) and Goodbye, Mommy (2015), another single mother with questionable parenting skills finds herself trapped in an ostensibly haunted house with her two children in The Diabolical (2015). That interesting and ambiguous title allows the film to give off an instantly sinister impression, which provides the audience with a preparatory primer while also conjuring up subconscious ideas of what will take place within. Etymologically, diabolical stems from the latin diabolus, or devil, and heavily hints at the hellish root of the house’s haunting. More recently, the term diabolical calls to mind the visages of evil, powerful antagonists like Bond villains, or Mr. Burns. The film’s two main posters also do an excellent job at presenting tight, creepy, demonic images of the spectral apparition hiding a knife above the house, or as a reflection in a mirror respectively, with taglines that make much more sense with hindsight.
First time director Alistair Legrand helms his maiden voyage featuring former whipped cream bikini model and fake “It Girl” Ali Larter, leading her out into the tumultuous sea of story that is The Diabolical. Larter stars as Madison, the young single mother of Jacob, played by Max Rose, and Haley, played by Chloe Perrin. After an overhead shot of the town lit up at night that calls to mind burning embers, a tracking shot that essentially acts as a specter’s POV floats the audience in through the second story window, and through the house and bedrooms downstairs to where Madison lies asleep at her computer. The power surges and the specter manifests itself as a gruesome, faceless entity, which Madison seems to take in stride before telling herself that it isn’t real. Ghostly opening credits then use smoky effects to present just how ephemeral that apparition seems to be.As the film progresses, we learn Madison is in financial trouble, her husband and father of her children is dead, and she is sleeping with her son’s tutor. Jacob is a twelve-year-old with an anger problem. Haley speaks to the apparition that she believes to be her deceased father. Patrick Fischler, the dean from Old School (2003) and the terrified guy from the alley at the diner in Mulholland Drive (2001), represents the corporation looking to buy Madison out of her mortgage. Paranormal investigators have interest in the house. Needless to say, there is a lot going on. The audience moseys along a stereotypical haunted house movie before the narrative takes a pretty drastic left turn, and becomes a convoluted mess. It would do a disservice to the film to explain what ensues, as the narrative heavily relies on this misdirection and revelation. None of this is to say the film is bad, because it is not. Not that it is especially good per se, but it is at least interesting. The Diabolical probably requires at least two viewings, and even after the second one all of your questions may not be answered, and the plot holes may not be filled. The motifs of doors and power surges maintain a mystique of the unknown, for who knows what lies beyond closed doors and what could possibly cause the surges that seem to precede the manifestations. When watching or reading fiction, the audience can suspend disbelief for one or possibly two conceits before frustration leads to discrediting of the story. The Diabolical desires you to accept more. Without giving anything away, choose any four of the following plot conceits and they may apply: ghosts, monsters, time travel, cloning, young psychopaths, powers-that-be corporations, teleportation. With so much going on, it simply does not quite work. Couple the juggling of plot points with the terrible parenting of Madison and you get The Diabolical’s narrative. Larter plays a comically inept mother, even by horror movie standards. You can already hear audiences all over the globe screaming “Get out of the house!” There seems to be a very simple solution to all of this, which she will simply not accept. This allows for the film to touch on complicated parenting issues, but does not allow it to delve deeper into said issues. This film’s narrative aspires to far more than its recent predecessors, but ultimately falls short due to convolution and weak cinematography. The special effects look incredibly CGI’d, and with Crimson Peak (2015) out now it makes for a bit of an unfair comparison. Ultimately, The Diabolical merits a second viewing due to its presentation of some complex ideas and story points, but a person should not expect satisfaction after round two.