Friday, January 30, 2015

At the Devil's Door

At the Devil’s Door (2014)
Dir. and written by Nicholas McCarthy
Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ashley Rickards, Naya Rivera

First things first: Hooray, today I finally passed last year’s milestone of 56 Chainsawnukah movies, and I still have a few more to go! Obviously next year I’m gonna have to think of a new way to do this so I’m not writing reviews well into July, but hey, onward ever upward.

Now,  on to the movie. As you no doubt recall, I was a huge fan of Nicholas McCarthy’s 2012 debut THE PACT. If memory serves, I called it “a really god damn impressive example of a horror film which was obviously made with almost no money but feels more intense and ambitious than nearly any other horror film I saw last year,” and I stand by that. It continues to strike me as a startlingly assured film debut, a tense and glacially escalating exercise in horror by implication and generalized anxiety. Plus it had Casper Van Dien in it. You gotta like a serious, quiet, and ambitious horror movie that has Casper Van Dien in it, that’s just a rule. Write it down.

So obviously I was pretty stoked that McCarthy got another movie going so quick. This one has a little more ambition, a little more money (two --count em’!-- two helicopter shots!) but unfortunately for my money isn’t quite as imaginative in its scares. It’s pretty much a typical demonic haunted house gimmick, and has most of the standard bag of tricks that come along with that (why yes, it has the scene where someone looks into a mirror and omg there’s a scary face behind them!!). The story follows three young women across multiple decades, as they independently begin to figure out that this house is some kind of hellgate, through which the devil plans to bring forth the antichrist; exactly the sort of place you don’t want to be if you’ve got one of those wombs we keep hearing so much about. Pretty well-trodden horror film territory, with the usual bells and whistles. Not a disaster, but nowhere near the icy dread that is THE PACT’s bread and butter. Both films traffic in plenty of slow, dread-inducing builds in a quiet house, but this time around, you can expect them to occasionally be suddenly shattered by something violent and crazy. It’s a workable dynamic, but much closer to the usual horror jump-scare tactics, rather than the long slow burn McCarthy successfully employed previously. The tense wait is more upsetting than the exclamation mark at the end, and this one has a lot more exclamation marks to mar the building suspense. And those exclamation marks are themselves of slightly less interest.

See, Vampires never have this problem.

I dunno, maybe I’m just uniquely predisposed to not be scared of Devilish shenanigans, but the whole demonic thing seems a bit played out and AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR doesn’t really add much to the old standbys of the genre. And frankly, I’m just not sure demonic/satanic films work anymore. I know for a fact this director doesn’t believe in Satan. I mean, I guess most horror directors don’t believe in ghosts or bigfoots either, but I dunno, I think back in the day Satanism movies got more kick because they really felt dangerous, perverse. Lot of people believed in this stuff, but now it looks almost quaint, nostalgic even. Even something as stupid as THE CAR in 1977 could goose a little gleeful sense of danger by name-checking Anton LaVey in the credits. But come on, nobody hip enough to watch AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR puts any real stock in this old medieval Catholic hocus-pocus. Its why Ti West had to travel back in time and shoot HOUSE OF THE DEVIL in the 1980s, it just doesn’t quite hit the panic button the way it used to with a modern audience. Or maybe I’m just out of touch with where America is on this issue. I just know what I see in the movin’ pictures.

That said, if McCarthy is a little unambitious in his demonic tomfoolery, he makes up for it with a twisty narrative that is as decidedly unconventional as the scares are shopworn. There are three leads here, and their stories interact with each other in some highly unexpected way, shaking you out of your horror movie complacency and cheerfully announcing that anything is possible here. Like most movies with radical violations of the usual narrative storytelling rules (from PSYCHO to ADAPTATION) you can’t help but kind of miss the satisfaction that a traditional narrative provides. But on the other hand it makes it a kind of exciting experience since it rips away all your preconceived ideas about how this will likely play out. I don’t know that it really ups the suspense, but it does make it kind of giddy and breathless, at the cost of being kind of disjointed. That’s a welcome change, every once in a while.

Unlike so, so many other problems in this world, this is not one that can be stabbed away.

As with THE PACT, McCarthy again shows himself capable of assembling a fine cast and getting excellent, naturalistic performances out of them, complimented by his subtlely fine framing which seems to capture the real world that most of us live in a lot better than most Hollywood movies attempt.* And even if the horror payoff don’t always live up it, the guy is aces at setting up those quiet, dread-soaked buildups. Man, put him in any given room with a silent protagonist and a few minutes of screentime, and he’ll find a way to make you squirm in your seat. That's no surprise to fans of his first film. One thing added to the formula here, though, is a sly and understated sense of pitch-black humor. Just like the fragmented storyline and the corny old demonic antics, I’m not sure it’s the best match with his talent for provoking quiet anxiety, but hey, at least it’s something different. And it works; the movie takes itself pretty seriously and has some pretty heavy stuff in there, but it also kind of invites you to approach the horror with a devious smile (which may be a subtle acknowledgement to my earlier point about how hard it is to take seriously the idea of a physical devil). And if all these ambitions work together inelegantly for most of the runtime, they finally manage to click for the delightful finale. That ending’s a doozy, and really a perfect blend of the whole movie: glacial and chilly dread, subtle deadpan comedy, and unusual ideas baked in with hoary old cliches. The movie only intermittently works this well, but once you get all those cylinders firing together, it’s an undeniably potent, seductive mixture.

The freewheeling strangeness of the tone and structure meld uneasily with the usual tropes of demonic horror cinema, ultimately kinda making this an interesting near-miss for me, a slight disappointment after the solid, focused precision of THE PACT. But it’s got a lot of stuff to like, and certainly gives more evidence that this McCarthy fellow is more than a talented one-trick pony. Even though it didn’t quite come together, it just makes me more excited to see what he’ll try next, which is probably about the highest compliment you can give a filmmaker. Plus as far as realty-business themed horror movies go, this is way better than OPEN HOUSE. And hey, good to know someone else still likes DON’T LOOK NOW red raincoats, so this movie delivers on that front as well. Something for everyone! LISTING: AT THE DEVIL’S door may be something of a fixer-upper, but it’s a unique property that boasts lots of room for a young filmmaker to grow. And hey, it’s Hellgate accessible, always a nice convenience in this busy modern world. Pet Friendly. If you watched here, you'd be home already.

*I love that you actually see an apartment with those slatted vertical window blinds -- everyone has lived in one of those at one time, but how often do you actually see them in a movie? Almost never.


The Hunt For Dread October
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: None, but give them time.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Academy-award-nominated Catalina Sandino Moreno (for MARIA FULL OF GRACE). OK looking at her subsequent work she's not exactly anchoring big-budget action movies or nothin', but it's still funny that she's in here.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Yeah, like LOVELY MOLLY there's a sexual-assault-by-unseen-force here. A little less graphic, though; the dark one doesn't seem inclined to remove any clothes, so that's a plus.
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: Demon troubles, so not classical ghost haunting. But again, it's obviously the house that's the problem.
  • MONSTER: We do get a quick glimpse of one
  • THE UNDEAD: Yes, I think this probably counts.
  • POSSESSION: There is a suggestion that the demons here can possess people.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: We see very little of it, but there's obviously an evil cult that gets the ball rolling.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid- high. Tiny theatrical release, now on Netflix.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If you think there might be demonic forces in your house... where should you not be living?
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Actually the Devil is past the door; the devil-call is coming from inside the house, get out!!! It premiered under the more generic but more accurate title HOME. The current title makes it sound like he's next door and you're over for a visit, which is not technically accurate. But I guess maybe it refers to the door between devil-land and your house, in which case it arguably makes sense.
Aces. Virtually the whole cast is female.

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