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at_the_devils_door

Writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s full-length debut, The Pact (2012), might not have been a perfect film but it was still a pretty darn good one: nicely atmospheric, evocative, methodically paced and possessed of a genuinely surprising (if sorta nonsensical) twist ending, The Pact was a suitably eerie little haunted house chiller and certainly boded well for the rest of McCarthy’s burgeoning career. If nothing else, The Pact showcased an exciting, new filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to let his film play out at its own, languorous pace, sort of a less exceptional cousin to Mike Flanagan’s leisurely paced Oculus (2013).

Now, two years down the road, McCarthy has reunited with many of the principal crew behind his debut, including cinematographer Bridger Nielson and composer Ronen Landa, to fashion his sophomore film, At the Devil’s Door (2014). In a twist that no one (including yours truly) saw coming, At the Devil’s Door is so similar to The Pact, in both look, structure and narrative that it feels, for all intents and purposes, as if McCarthy has drawn this from the exact same inspirational well that yielded his debut. An evil presence in a house? Check. Dysfunctional sisters as the main protagonists? Check. An austere, serious feel that emphasizes mood over generic jump scares and ultra-violence? You get the point. Uncanny similarities aside, there’s really only one important question to answer: does At the Devil’s Door do what it sets out to do? Let’s find out.

We begin with teenaged Hannah (Ashley Rickards), whose just met a hunky guy, Calvin (Nick Eversman) while vacationing in California. Calvin seems cool and all but Hannah should probably have been a little more worried when he cajoled her into selling her soul to Satan, via his creepy Uncle Mike (Michael Massee), for the whopping sum of $500. She’s not, however, and she returns home to face lots of creepy shit, a mysterious virgin pregnancy and the unsettling notion that “something” has taken up residence inside her body.

Afterwards, we’re introduced to driven real estate agent, Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and her younger artist sister, Vera (Glee’s Naya Rivera). Like the sisters in McCarthy’s debut, Leigh and Vera have enough outstanding issues to fill the Grand Canyon. As it so happens, Leigh has been contacted by a rather odd couple, Chuck (Daniel Roebuck) and Royanna (Jan Broberg), to sell their house…the very same house that we see Hannah inhabiting at the beginning. While checking the place out, Leigh happens to spy a mysterious young woman, clad in a bright, red rain coat. Chuck and Royanna think that the young lady might be their runaway daughter, Charlene: dutiful Leigh is only too happy to help them find some answers.

When something untoward happens to Leigh, however, Vera must now begin her own investigation into what’s going on. As creepy figures pop up in mirrors and underneath the kitchen sink, Vera gets ever closer to the truth about what happened to Hannah, Charlene and, by extension, her own sister. Will Vera be able to undo the evil that was perpetrated at that lonely, California crossroad or will her and her loved ones become just another cog in a dastardly game of demonic possession, maternal love and obsession?

First, the good news. Thanks to the return of The Pact’s creative personnel, At the Devil’s Door looks and sounds just as good as McCarthy’s debut. Nielson has a real skill with framing shots for maximum effect and there are some moments here (the amazing shot where Leigh lies in the foreground while something truly monstrous “molts” out of someone in the background is but one example) that are just as good as what came before. Hand-in-hand with Nielson’s visuals, Ronen Landa’s score is nicely evocative and, usually, used to good, subtle effect. As with the debut, At the Devil’s Door certainly reminds of something like Oculus and that’s a compliment in every sense of the word.

Performance-wise, no one here is as good as Caity Lotz or Casper van Dien were in The Pact but they’re all suitably solid, nonetheless. Particularly surprising is Rivera, who manages to handily shed all remnants of her TV personality and gifts us with a performance that’s a nice combination of intensity, awkwardness, inner turmoil and steely resolve. It’s not the kind of performance that wins awards but it is the kind that should ensure plenty of casting agents will be calling her up in the near future. Most importantly, Rivera’s performance never feels off, unlike the occasionally tone-deaf work of her screen sister, as portrayed by Moreno.

The bad news, as hinted above, is that At the Devil’s Door breaks absolutely no new ground for McCarthy as either a director or a writer: in every way, this is a retelling (albeit one with major narrative differences) of The Pact. We have the same pacing, the same narrative structure (we begin with one sister before ending up with the other sister), the same moldy mirror gags (McCarthy seems to love these as much as I dislike them), the same scenes where a malevolent, invisible presence tosses our protagonists around like rag dolls. Indeed, by utilizing the same behind-the-camera crew, At the Devil’s Door ends up seeming more of a natural sequel to The Pact then its actual sequel, The Pact 2 (2014), does.

This sense of similarity wouldn’t be so off-putting if McCarthy opted to do anything different with the material but, alas, the sense of “same-old, same-old” is almost overpowering. By opening with the bit where Hannah sells her soul, any true sense of mystery is eliminated almost before the film has rolled out its opening credits. While the finale still offers up a twist (albeit another one as old as the hills), any audience member who pays attention should be able to plot each and every beat here: there are no real surprises, especially if one is familiar with practically any other demonic possession film under the sun.

With only two full-lengths under his belt, I’m definitely not ready to write McCarthy off yet, even if I might not be as eager to check out his new films as I might have been before. If nothing else, there’s certainly something laudable about his commitment to produce atmospheric, lush films, especially ones which feature strong female protagonists (still a major Achilles’ heel for the horror industry). To be honest, without The Pact in the picture, At the Devil’s Door would have probably hit me a lot harder. As it stands, however, McCarthy’s latest is just more of the same: that’s okay but more than a little disappointing. Here’s to hoping the writer-director steps out of his comfort zone on his next go round.

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