Fantasia 2014: ‘At the Devil’s Door’ easily frightens despite a muddy script

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at_the_devils_door_xlgAt the Devil’s Door
Written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy
USA, 2014

To have a family someone has to have made a family, which brings the discussion of familial ties to the topic of procreation with, preferably, a loved one. Building a family is an accepted practice of most societies, but that is not to say that everyone partakes in it. Some cannot whereas others choose not to. A select number of people do not feel themselves as deserving to be a parent or are simply uninterested in the prospect of raising children. For instance, they may not see the world as is as the place where they would like to offer a young one a home. The question of lineage therefore becomes a moot point for those people. While creating a new generation may not appeal to everyone, it is a commonly accepted practice in virtually all societies around the world. Among those who seek to expand their genealogical tree? The devil himself, as depicted in Nicholas McCarthy’s latest effort, At the Devil’s Door.

McCarthy starts his picture in California in the 1980s, somewhere off the grid as a couple of young lovers walk towards an isolated trailer. The boyfriend has convinced his main squeeze (Ashley Rickards) to visit his ‘uncle’ with whom she will play a simple game resulting in her selling her soul to the devil. Following this unnerving encounter, the girl is told to spend some time in a house at a specific address where an evil force beyond anyone’s comprehension takes hold of her. Flash ahead several years and a real estate agent named Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is trying to sell the very house in which the aforementioned damned girl was attacked. It is during one of Leigh’s visits to the house to perform inspection duties that she comes across a non-communicative girl donning a red raincoat. Leigh believes this to be the lost daughter of the sellers. What she doesn’t know is that a corruptible spectre is about to change her life and that of her younger sibling, bachelorette sister Vera (Naya Rivera), forever.

It can be argued that a movie that is about a great many things is a strong one. There are more than enough examples throughout film history to support this statement. Movies that tackle several issues can be analyzed and enjoyed on multiple levels and speak to a wider audience than those that concentrate on hammering home a single viewpoint or idea. One must be mindful, though, that the mere fact that a film is thematically multifaceted is not a guarantee of quality. The filmmaker must cohesively weave the numerous ideas into the film’s fabric to help ensure cohesion for the final product. What Nicholas McCarthy does with At the Devil’s Door is offer a series of pertinent, thematically rich concepts that can very well be tied into the horror genre, but rather than meld them together seamlessly, the film bounces from one to the other, resulting in a movie that is indeed about a lot of things yet unsure of what it has to say about any of them.

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Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that McCarthy’s endeavour is a complete and utter mess, let those worries be laid to waste straight away. At the Devil’s Door, as a scare fest, is a highly effective movie. Director McCarthy supremely builds tension in a variety of ways, sometimes even successfully producing a jump scare despite the audience knowing full well what is lurking just around the corner, a feat precious few directors can pull off. The atmosphere which reigns is one of impending dread, as if whatever the protagonists choose to do will prove to be the incorrect decision. Camerawork is and should be one of the top priorities of directors delving in the horror genre, with great care put into deciding what the audience needs to see and what it doesn’t. At the Devil’s Door excels in this department as well, hinting at some petrifying images, frequently in creative ways that make one’s skin crawl. One in particular involving a beast ‘outing’ itself from a body easily ingrains itself in one’s memory. Supporting the scares is a strong cast, the standout being Naya Rivera as Vera, the younger sister who refuses to start a family or get married, much to the disappointment of older sister Leigh who is incapable of bearing children. Rivera offers the most natural performance in the film, as a young woman whose ideal vision of her own future is turned upside down when satanic forces take a keen interest in her family.

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That last point about Vera being forced to abandon her preferred marriage-free and child-free lifestyle choice is both part of the film’s strength and weakness. On the one hand, it makes her a more interesting character and allows for actress Naya Rivera to sink her teeth into a meaty role. On the flip side, it is but one of several ideas cobbled together that never fully coalesce to form a singular vision. Case in point is the film’s first third, during which the story spends a good deal of time on economic hardships in the modern day United States. A fascinating topic to be sure, only it is quickly jettisoned in favour of demonic possession, which is then jettisoned in favour of the topic of lineage and what it means to seed a family and build a home, eventually shooed away for a finale that unsubtly alludes to the apocalypse. In fairness, all four intermingle somewhat, preventing the film from ever becoming truly lost at sea. It can said that there is a lot of meat on the bones, but it’s as if the same bone had beef, pig and lamb stuck to it. It tastes good but it’s a little strange nonetheless.

Regardless of the script’s shortcomings, At the Devil’s Door will surely entertain horror fans looking for good scares and a convincingly oppressive atmosphere. On those levels McCarthy’s picture delivers in spades, and features a really nice lead performance to boot. As with even the best laid plans, however, they don’t always fully come to fruition.

— Edgar Chaput

Please visit the official website of the Fantasia International Film Festival.





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