PLOT: A teenaged girl's decision to sell her soul to the devil has devastating consequences (duh!) on not only her, but a realtor who, years later, has to sell her house.
REVIEW: With AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (RENT IT HERE), director Nicholas McCarthy proves himself a very capable orchestrator of eeriness and dread. He drags sequences of foreboding to their limit, accentuating them with low, disquieting hums before springing loud pangs of noise for maximum jump-out-of-your-seat fright. With a tight script and a bit more seasoning, he might deliver something truly effective along the lines of James Wan's best films.
But he's not working with a tight script here, and AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR is ultimately a robotic effort. Indeed, McCarthy wrote the script himself, and the film - about a demon looking for just the right body to possess - ends up resembling a patchwork of finer horror films. (You could list off ROSEMARY'S BABY, DON'T LOOK NOW, THE OMEN and several others dutifully throughout.) As an old saying goes, he knows the notes but not the music: he's copied the look and feel of the best the genre has to offer, but he's neglected the fact that the story and characters are what make those movies memorable, not just the myriad frights. AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR feels like it's a jumble of scary scenes in search of a coherent plot.
The movie begins with a rather strange sequence: a young woman (Ashley Rickards) decides to sell her soul to a sinister fellow in a shack for a measly wad of money. What for? I'm not sure the purpose. (Because she's in love with her weirdo boyfriend and he wants her to do it?) Before long, she's hearing voices and clearly being haunted by some kind of demon (maybe it's even "The Devil!") and, ultimately, finds herself possessed. But the movie isn't interested in her very much, so at about the 15 minute mark the baton is passed to a new character: a realtor (Catalina Santino Moreno) tasked with selling the house of a troubled couple whose daughter just ran away from home. One thing standing in the way of a successful sale: a girl in a red raincoat appears to be haunting the grounds. Is it the couple's missing daughter? The young lady from the prologue? Are they the same person - or is this something entirely different?
We become engaged with the realtor's story just long enough for it to abruptly come to a halt in favor of yet another new focus: the realtor's sister, an artist named Vera (Naya Rivera), who is now forced to investigate the succession of ominous events going down at that house. At this point, McCarthy's conceit is quite clear: he's attempting to keep us off-balance by never allowing us to get used to one particular protagonist. It's a neat trick, but a trick all the same. It's tough to become deeply invested in the overall story if McCarthy won't let us settle in with a lead - or even leads - we actually care about. The fact that he's switching things up at a moment's notice doesn't draw us in closer, it pushes us away.
The story may be a muddle, but the most nagging thing about AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR is that it often feels like an audition tape for the director. The concepts in the movie don't really make sense, and characters act in fully irrational ways (see: that girl selling her soul for no discernible reason); each action is there to serve as a jumping-off point for one of McCarthy's set-pieces. To his credit, there are a handful of potent sights to be seen: a levitating body jerking around as an unseen monster invades; a thoroughly effective look at the demonic entity as he hides in a confined space; a shadowy figure looming way in the background, inching ever closer to an unwitting victim in the foreground. Again, none of these are new ideas, but McCarthy's like an expert imitator, regurgitating his favorite genre cliches with precision.
There isn't much to say one way or the other about the cast, as McCarthy keeps his three leads fairly devoid of action or reaction. All three - Rickards, Moreno and Rivera - have close to the same facial expression throughout, that of uneasy shock or concern. If anything, Rickards proves that she's more than just the cutie from MTV's "Awkward," which I've never actually seen but know it's about one million miles away from her frightened, paranoid turn here. The actresses don't have much backstory to play with, or even true vulnerability to display, so I can only give them credit for staying just present enough to register.