at-the-devils-door-8Once or twice each NASCAR season, a car near the lead, maybe even in first place, will run out of gas on the last lap. Instead of racing to triumph, the driver does his or her best just to nurse the car across the finish line. The NASCAR metaphor is an apt description of what happens in the horror film, At the Devil’s Door. After roaring ahead of its genre competition for the better part of its 93-minute runtime, the movie runs out of gas and ideas in its final ten minutes and resorts to clichés to limp to the end credits. The absence of a strong finish is particularly notable for a film that successfully avoids the obvious, while delivering some real jolts and two terrific twists along the way.

Horror fans love to see how quickly they can identify the sub genre they’re watching. Director/screenwriter Nicholas McCarthy seems conscious of this affinity and works to stay one step ahead of viewers who are too eager to guess how this one will turn out. Certainly, McCarthy weaves in elements from familiar films, most notably Rosemary’s Baby, but he is largely successful at sustaining an element of uncertainty through a rather simple, but diabolical approach: you never know who he is willing to kill off.

The film opens with a teenage girl (Ashley Rickards) and her boyfriend in a Public Service Announcement on bad judgment brought to you by parents everywhere. She loves him, and that’s all the explanation needed for her going to a dilapidated motor home to play a game with Uncle Mike. She “wins” the contest and earns a roll of soiled bills and the dubious title of the chosen one. All she has to do to claim the title is walk down to the crossroads and say her name aloud, proving that it’s not just bluesmen who can meet Old Nick that way.

The other part of the narrative focuses on two sisters. Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is the practical one, a real estate agent struggling in a down market. Her younger sister, Vera (Naya Rivera), is the artist, darker and more sensitive. She can have children, but is not interested. Leigh is desperate for family, but cannot conceive. Leigh is asked to list the house where the girl at the crossroads lived. Her parents explain that their daughter ran off with her boyfriend a few months back, and they haven’t seen her since. When Leigh first finds the roll of dirty cash and then sees the girl in the house, she begins to suspect that this place is not just the usual fixer-upper.

The three lead actresses are uniformly good. Rickards, in particular, wonderfully walks the line between aching vulnerability and terrifying evil. Moreno and Rivera convincingly play sisters with distinct personalities, but a discernible connection. Director McCarthy falls in love with wire work, and we see each of the three actresses supernaturally suspended in mid-air with a hint of suggestion, although his general approach towards the women is rather chaste considering the subject matter.

Other than one scene in which screenwriter McCarthy resorts to the head-slapping plot device of sending a young woman into a dark house for no justifiable reason other than to deliver a scare, the story generally has logical consistency, and the pace, as established by the weaving of the two threads of the story together, is exemplary.

Pity about the ending, though.

Two and a half stars.

 

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