One of my earliest reviews for Anythinghorror involved a movie called THE PACT (have a read of it here), a 2012 film from writer/director Nicholas McCarthy. McCarthy had started out making documentary shorts on feature films such as ROBOCOP, STARSHIP TROOPERS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and in 2011 he made an eleven-minute short film, THE PACT, starring Jewel Staite (TV’s FIREFLY) as a young woman alone in the house of her late mother, besieged by a ghostly presence.
McCarthy, who pointed to his love of the horror films of Dario Argento and Val Lewton as an influence, received much acclaim at the 2011 Sundance Film festival, and on the basis of this secured funding to expand it into a feature film. My review ended with my being impressed with this first feature, and looking forward to seeing what McCarthy would offer in the future.
Flash forward to today, and McCarthy has given us AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR. Could he meet my expectations now?
The film opens up confusingly, at least for me, having read the synopsis on IMDb: a teenage girl (Ashley Rickards, ONE TREE HILL) making out on a bed with a boy, who tells her that she can make herself five hundred dollars by playing a game with a weird man in a trailer in the middle of a desert, and really, who wouldn’t grab at a chance like that? What could possibly go wrong?
The weird man plays a shell game, to see if “he” has chosen her. And guess what? Like when you hear from those Nigerian princes and horny women in your city waiting to meet you, this is her lucky day! All she has to do is to go out to a deserted crossroads and say her name, so “he” knows her name when he calls for her. Bet she’s the type of girl who gives out her credit card details online to buy penis enhancement equipment.
Later that night, she’s at home alone when she hears creaks and moans and sees shadows moving and there’s a voice in her wardrobe that tells her to “come to me”. Just for once, she finds enough sense not to listen to voices in the wardrobe – but then she’s lifted up by an invisible force, flung about like a toy in my dog’s mouth, and dropped…
Still, the $500 probably made it all worthwhile.
Now we cut to a real estate agent named Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno, TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE) who has been engaged by a couple named Chuck and Royanna to sell their house. Their daughter Charlene has been missing for some time, and they’re moving on – but Leigh keeps seeing the girl around the house, which has been emptied of nearly everything but the wardrobe, where she finds the five hundred dollars. Except that the girl that we see, the one from the beginning of the movie, isn’t the parents’ missing girl Charlene.
In fact, it’s a girl named Hannah White, who lived there back in the Eighties, had quickly gone doolally after the business on the crossroads, terrifying a couple whose baby she was minding, before going home and killing herself. You see, the stuff we’ve been seeing with the girl and the money and all that were all flashbacks, not that any of this was explained. I’m assuming all this, and that the parents we saw weren’t hallucinations or whatever.
Look, I don’t need everything spelled out for me in big type and monosyllables, but I’d like a certain amount of coherence.
Anyway, in the present day Leigh follows the ghost around the house until she reaches the bedroom, staring into a mirror, and of course despite realising the truth about all this, she goes chasing after it, because you would, wouldn’t you? And when she does, Leigh drops to the floor in convulsions, dying, as something shadowy pours out from the ghost’s feet, like ectoplasmic pee soaking the rug.
Enter Leigh’s artist sister Vera (Naya Rivera, GLEE), who begins looking into matters involving Leigh’s death, despite the lack of evidence of foul play. Learning about Hannah, she interviews some of the dead girl’s old friends, learning that Hannah had been pregnant when she died despite being a virgin, and feared that the foetus was a demon. Do I need to mention that Vera begins hearing creaks and moans and seeing shadows moving, and there’s a voice in her impossibly huge apartment that tells her to “come to me”?
Like his previous effort THE PACT, McCarthy offers some very decent and effective shots, and can generate atmosphere and shadow like nobody’s business; in another life, Hammer Films could have employed him. And it was interesting to see the leads being taken up by three women, without a male partner of some sort to take over and rescue them in the final act. And the women themselves do what they can with the roles.
But the movie falls down mightily with the story. Apart from the aforementioned incoherence between timelines and sequences, the general lack of characterisation among the principals (Leigh is an estate agent who can’t have children; Vera is an artist; Hannah is an idiot who’ll go out to a crossroads and say her name to the Devil for $500 – this is about all you learn from them) and a final act that feels like an extended epilogue that wasn’t necessary, there’s the movie breaking its own rules.
In order for the Devil to appear to Hannah, she had to take the money and say her name at a crossroads – things neither Leigh nor Vera did, but the Devil still comes after them anyway? There wasn’t even a hint that something had passed between each of them, like the Runes in the classic NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. Had this been a short film, perhaps glaring plot holes and the general confusion could have been forgiven, but not in a full-length movie.
AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR (which at least is an improvement over the original title, the amazingly bland HOME) is in the end a disappointing effort. Nick, if you’re reading this, take my advice: next time, stick to the directing and get someone else to write your script, it’s not a crime to let more talented people take over the writing reins, especially if you’re doing more than making short films. Ask Scott or me, we’ll cut a deal with you. The movie is now available on VOD and DVD.
Director: Nicholas McCarthy (also screenplay)
Plot: 1 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy