McCarthy kicks off the film with an intense prologue and every scary scene that follows maintains a high level of intensity.
At the Devil’s Door
The long road between the small screen and the silver screen is littered with the corpses of wonderfully talented individuals who knew nothing but success when beamed into millions of homes each week, but many failed to bring those millions of viewers into the box office. Oh, there are those who successfully navigated that road: Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, Ron Howard. Even Jennifer Aniston, who many think is box office poison, but is actually a success if you study the numbers carefully.
The rest of Aniston’s Friends cast mates? Roadside litter. Sure, they’ve all found work and even Courtney Cox had the Scream franchise, but those five Central Perk denizens who didn’t play Rachel just haven’t made it happen on the big screen. The same might someday be said for the cast of Glee. It’s still a little too soon to tell, but early indications aren’t promising. Chris Colfer had some indie success with Struck By Lightning, but Lea Michelle’s New Year’s Eve and Dianna Agron’s I Am Number Four and The Family failed to dazzle. Next up, Glee alum Naya Rivera takes on her first lead in IFC Midnight’s At the Devil’s Door.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the late 1980s, a young man convinces his young lover to sell her soul to the devil for a stack of cash. She does it but regrets it – and regrets it doubly so after the devil has his way with her. Fast-forward to the present day and a middle-aged couple whose daughter is missing needs to sell their house to make ends meet in a tough economy. Their real estate agent is Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who, walking through the house after it has been all but emptied, finds the exact same cash from decades before – the devil’s money. When things take a dark turn, Leigh’s sister Vera (Naya Rivera), a rising artist, does some investigating that leads her back to the story of that first young girl. What you get with writer/director Nicholas McCarthy‘s At the Devil’s Door is a little win, a little lose, and a little draw.
In the win column is the most important thing you want from a horror film: scares … and plenty of them. McCarthy (The Pact) kicks off the film with an intense prologue about the girl and her deal with the devil, and every scary scene that follows maintains a high level of intensity. And it is intensity, not simply a series of jump scares shoddily designed and recklessly inserted for cheap thrills. There are one or two effective (and acceptable) false-fright moments, but every other shock is earned by doing something shocking.
Also in the win column is some very good cinematography from Bridger Nielson, who is at his best in the prologue scenes. Speaking of those prologue scenes, they also appear as flashbacks, deftly inserted throughout the film and creating a non-linear story that keeps you interested.
Well … their deft insertion keeps you interested in the flashback scenes, at least.
And herein lies the first half of the one-two punch in the loss column for At the Devil’s Door: the story – the modern-day story – isn’t so much a house of cards as it is a couple of flimsy deuces and fours hastily thrown together to resemble something that wants to be a structure. The entire plot feels like it was written around a few key scary scenes. That makes every non-scary moment that takes place onscreen the moment that brings the film to a grinding halt with unnecessary tedium. It is so frustrating. You know the film can’t be 90 minutes of scares, so you want those downtimes, those heart-calming rests, to at least be interesting or advance a plot. There is no advancement here. There are only moments that move you from Point A to Point B like a dull city bus ride.
The back-end of that bad combination are the poorly developed characters, namely sisters Leigh and Vera. The only things I can tell you about them are this: their occupations, that they’re relationship is tenuous for reasons unknown, that Leigh is a Christian because one day she goes to church to pray (in one of those scenes that serves no purpose other than for McCarthy to suggest that, hey, God is here too), and that Vera’s latest boy toy is a doofus. And when I say “the only thing I can tell you,” I don’t mean because of spoilers. I mean because the women are never developed beyond that. These aren’t characters, they’re characteristics, but that’s all they’ve got. Even by the film’s end, I had no grasp of what kind of people these women were.
What’s so funny is that the prologue parts that were woven into the story were so compelling that I want to know more about those people than I do Leigh and Vera. How did they get there? Why did they need the money? Who is the mysterious man who runs the shell game? Prequel, please.
That leaves the draw: Rivera. The jury is still out on the Glee actress as a movie star because of the losses above. Without a developed character to lose herself into or a decent story to get lost in, she never has a chance to show if she has any range at all. It looks like her direction from McCarthy consisted of either brood or pout, because when the devil isn’t lurking, that’s about all her character does.
At the Devil’s Door makes the case for Nicholas McCarthy’s potential as a horror director. There is plenty to like in this film in terms of atmosphere and fright, but his director half needs to demand more from his writer half. Every horror film released today stands in the shadows of films like The Conjuring and Oculus. That doesn’t mean they need A-list stars or directors; that means they must remember that a horror story isn’t just about the horror; it’s about the story, too.