AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR
(US - 2014)
THE PACT (2012) was one of the most effective feature debuts in the horror genre in recent years. A terrific example of slow-burn done right, THE PACT was a genuine sleeper that's found a major cult following thanks to its streaming on Netflix Instant. McCarthy's follow-up effort, AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (shot and shown at festivals under the title HOME), shares some common themes with THE PACT and again allows the director to indulge in his gift for establishing an ominous sense of dread that grows more stomach-turning and uneasy with each new sequence. But McCarthy tries to tackle too much here: too many characters and too many detours lead to too many cut corners and too many loose ends. As in THE PACT, McCarthy's key concern is family: THE PACT had adult sisters whose memories of their dysfunctional upbringing manifest in unexpected ways in the present day. AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR has adult sisters who seem to have been orphaned at a relatively young age, with the older Leigh (MARIA FULL OF GRACE Oscar-nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno) seeing herself as the mother figure to the younger Vera (GLEE's Naya Rivera). But before we get to any of that, McCarthy's focus is on a teenager (Ashley Rickards) who falls hard for a boy (Nick Eversman) and ends up (I guess) inhabited by some kind of demonic spirit after playing a high-stakes shell game with the boy's creepy uncle (Michael Massee). Some initially unspecified amount of time passes as McCarthy then shifts to Leigh, a real estate agent tasked with selling the house where the girl used to live, and whom Leigh occasionally sees in the house only to flee when she tries to talk to her. Circumstances soon put Vera in the position of central character, when she's forced to take it upon herself to find the mystery girl and get to the bottom of assorted supernatural goings-on.
McCarthy plays his cards close to the vest in the early going, with some narrative time-jumping and a major reveal involving Rickards' character that probably should've landed better than it does. It's not unusual for a filmmaker to shift protagonists in the middle of the movie--PSYCHO is the granddaddy of that move--and Zack Parker's PROXY is probably the most recent example of one that does it successfully, but McCarthy has three alternating lead shifts before we get a real handle on any of them. Once he settles on Vera, it works somewhat because Rivera turns in the kind of strong, intense performance that THE PACT got from Caity Lotz, but Vera's story seems to gloss over important details and how she gets from one point to another. Throughout, the characters remain too enigmatic for us to be fully engrossed in the story. This is especially the case with Moreno's Leigh, who is saddled with the film's clumsiest exposition, whether McCarthy has her mentioning her immigrant status (younger Vera was born after their parents came to the US)--which seems to come about more from his unnecessary concern over explaining Moreno's accent than anything to do with advancing the narrative--or her inability to have children and her wish that Vera settle down and have some of her own. Like THE PACT, there's much focus on motherhood, children, and family, but it just doesn't seem as well-planned or fully-realized. If you'd never seen these films and watched them back-to-back, in either order, and were told both were made by the same guy, you'd swear AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR was the one made by a nervous first-timer throwing everything he's got at the wall and seeing what sticks because he might not get another chance, and THE PACT was the solid, sure-handed later effort of a filmmaker with confidence, discipline, and experience. On the basis of THE PACT alone (if you haven't seen it, you really should), McCarthy is one of the most promising horror prospects going today, and there are occasions where AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR works (there's one unnerving sequence with Rickards at a babysitting job that could almost function as its own short film, and the notion of a spirit taking over someone and "wearing them like a costume," is a uniquely creepy description), but it too often feels like he's just belaboring points made in THE PACT and stumbling over half-baked ideas about things like infertility and the immigrant experience that don't seem to belong here. Maybe this is the kind of film that improves on a repeat viewing, or would play better if you haven't already seen THE PACT, a simpler and much superior work. (Unrated, 93 mins)
THE DEVIL'S HAND
(US - 2014)
There's a thought-provoking film to be made about the terrifying, blind fervor of religious fanaticism, but only Meaney seems to be acting in that film. He's perfect as the unsympathetic, power-mad elder, overseeing his flock like a junkyard dog and prone to barking excuses like "As long as the Lord governs my actions, I can do no wrong!" With its concealed scythe killer evoking memories of the post-SCREAM-and-I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER slashers of the late '90s, Mary's romance with the sheriff's sensitive dudebro son (Thomas McDonnell), and most of the cast coming from shows like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE ORIGINALS, THE 100, and REIGN, too much of THE DEVIL'S HAND plays like The CW commissioned a remake of Wes Craven's DEADLY BLESSING. Other than Meaney, the relatively older vets like Sewell and Carpenter have little to do (both vanish from the movie by the end), but the performances of the younger actors are better than expected, especially Australian actress Carey, who was recently cast in the WALKING DEAD spinoff COBALT. Written by Karl Mueller, who co-wrote the reprehensible THE DIVIDE, and directed by one Christian E. Christiansen (if indeed that is your real name, sir), whose previous credits include the 2011 Leighton Meester/Minka Kelly SINGLE WHITE FEMALE ripoff THE ROOMMATE, THE DEVIL'S HAND also demonstrates sure signs of cutting to secure a PG-13 rating, and as we all know, horror fans want things as watered-down and PG-13 as possible. There's lots of splattery aftermaths to the mayhem, but little is shown during, and some of the murder scenes are rather choppy, no pun intended. THE DEVIL'S HAND is pretty mild and forgettable, but it's fast-paced and short enough that it gets the job done if you're just looking for a dumb movie to unwind to after a long day. There's just a lot here to back up the nagging feeling that it really could've been something more and that maybe it's just been hacked down to its most basic mainstream and safest, unchallenging elements, like some suggestions that Elder Beacon is molesting some of New Bethlehem's teenage girls--don't expect anything with a PG-13 rating to explore that plot thread. As it is, THE DEVIL'S HAND is little more than the intersecting union of a "CW viewers" and "Colm Meaney stalkers" Venn diagram. (PG-13, 86 mins)