At the risk of offending every glowing, pregnant woman out there, pregnancy has more than a passing resemblance to demonic possession. At a very basic level, they both involve an outside force inside your body that suddenly starts to take over. It’s no surprise then that most possession based horror finds itself running parallel, and sometimes directly through, the idea of childbirth. If horror is the exploration of what is truly terrifying to us, what is scarier than the loss of control of ourselves to a foreign body hiding within us? From “Rosemary’s Baby”, to “House of the Devil”, and to the latest by Nicholas McCarthy, At the Devil’s Door, the real thematic horror lies in the loss of self.
The beginning of At The Devil’s Door begins with that loss of control. In this case the loss is due to adolescent fueled “true love”. A young girl is coaxed by the boy she is infatuated with to sell her soul. Silly prank right? No harm in humoring some old man with money to make a boy happy right? Well, if you’re in a horror movie such as this one. You are wrong, so wrong. The narrative from here revolves around three women, the young girl(Ashley Rickards), a realtor(Catalina Sandino Moreno), and her sister(Naya Rivera). These three women are all in different stages of losing control, and all three have their own tactics to grasp desperately to any semblance of stability. In a film such as this, however, that stability is ultimately unattainable, held out of reach by the titular villain.
Much like McCarthy’s last film, “The Pact”, the villain of the film stays noticeably in the shadows. The threat of nefariousness is more present than any actual act for much of the film’s running time. Also, much like “The Pact” the homes of our heroines play front and center. The hallways, the rooms, the doorways all loom in long tracking shots. Sometimes they even get appreciable screen time when no character’s are present. It’s as if McCarthy believes, and in turn wants the audience to believe, that half of any given threat resides in the environment directly around us, especially the environment we usually consider safe.
All of this, the trinity of female characters, the shadowy threat of a villain, and the foreboding environment allows At the Devil’s Door to be a deeply effective film. The dread builds slowly and palpably for much of the movie’s running time. Though the technique of McCarthy’s direction can be traced back to his feature-film debut, it has grown in both skill and complexity here. Most of the film feels dirty, sticky, and just plain dark. The world these women live in, a world where an especially shadowy patriarchal figure looms over them with the threat of overtaking the control of their own bodies and, by extension, their entire lives, is without much hope and full of dread.
With that said, though, the final act of At the Devi’s Door slips noticeably in its execution. The dread becomes silly, the devil get’s a little too rowdy, and the final showdown is not the subversion of genre the audience is led to believe it will be. Without spoiling the contents of the climax, it is safe to say that the realism and the unease of the world that McCarthy took such time to build devolves into a standard demonic possession movie, complete with literal allusions to childbirth.
In the end, though, this devolution of the plot doesn’t change the fact that three-fourths of this film is some of the most effective cinematic tension building we have seen in 2014. If one can accept the somewhat conventional plot conclusion, the film as a whole stands up as a solid, if not stellar, example of modern horror.