There’s an unexpected, quiet meditation on loneliness and love at the core of At the Devil’s Door. That theme elevates writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s latest film beyond the glut of “demon baby” and Devil-driven fare we’ve been seeing over the last year, but it doesn’t make the story entirely successful. It’s just an added added, welcome layer that shows McCarthy – as he had previously proven in The Pact – is operating outside of the box when it comes to the genre. He demonstrates that in his themes and story structure. And even though the results can be a bit clunky, I appreciate his instincts.
Keeping his audience on its toes, McCarthy juggles the lives of three women: A mysterious young girl (Ashley Rickards) who meets a boy she loves and makes a dark pact; Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a real estate agent who is tasked with selling the girl’s house many years later; and Leigh’s artist sister, Vera (Naya Rivera).
Leigh’s story is the engine driving At the Devil’s Door and the mystery girl’s history is the fuel. In the course of prepping this girl’s house for the market, Leigh is thrust into the path of a supernatural force that has a very dark agenda. An overly familiar agenda that we’ve seen countless times, but it’s a nasty bit of business nonetheless. This force failed once at what it tried to do with the young girl and it doesn’t plan on failing again. Without giving too much away, Vera, a character who rests on the periphery of the story for the first half of the film is called into play and involuntarily becomes part of the film’s evil scheme.
There are a few really good scares in the film and one “blink and you’ll miss it” jaw-dropper that’s pretty darn cool. McCarthy handles the demonic stuff well, he keeps its on-screen presence fleeting and never lingers. Instead, he’s more interested in the thick, palpable dread surrounding Leigh and, ultimately Vera’s, investigation. Rickards’ character also lends the movie some added creepiness; she’s on the receiving end of some supernatural attacks and is the instigator of some of the film’s spookier moments. She shines in both cases. Moreno is just fine as Leigh, but it’s Rivera who is the blank slate the film is trying to get a feeling from. She’s a character who is self-sufficient and is far from being emotionally dependent on anyone, however, her performance is stony. I would have taken any emotion from her as long as it broke her rigid gaze.
In the midst of all of this, however, there’s that aforementioned theme of loneliness and love and it’s present in Rickards character, a young girl swept up in a romance with a boy from California; it’s present in Leigh, a woman who clearly wants a child but isn’t allowed to; and it’s present in Vera who, again, is fine on her own but is called out on her loner status by not just her sister but by a dude she had a fling with. Moreover, it’s present in the film’s supernatural force. If you look closely at its agenda…it’s determined to be a part of something more intimate and the end of the film hammers that home.
At the Devil’s Door may not feature an inspired story – hell, it even shares some similarities to McCarthy’s The Pact (it’s certainly a companion piece) – and its writing can be a bit stilted, but there’s a refreshing complexity to it and it’s definitely worth a look. McCarthy is growing as a filmmaker and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
(The film was screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival this week.)