Nearly all the pleasures to be derived from writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s technically accomplished but terminally disjointed At the Devil’s Door exist independent of its narrative, manifest in wordless standalone set pieces that thrum with tension. What’s lacking is the necessary connective tissue of thematic coherence and fully realized characters. An accumulation of dread in search of a properly fleshed-out screenplay to imbue its mess of plot elements with structure or purpose, the film plays like a show reel for McCarthy’s considerable craft.
Said elements are a pastiche of several decades’ worth of horror staples. The story kicks off with a bit of rural devil worship when a young woman (Ashley Rickards), on vacation in some infernal-looking California desert, is convinced by her boyfriend to play a sinister local’s shell game in return for a wad of cash. When she wins, the man—a dead ringer for Billy Drago and, therefore, clearly evil—informs her that she’s been “chosen” and asks her to walk to a crossroads and say her name aloud so “He” can find her. Improbably, the girl complies, only to discover upon returning home that “He” is neither human nor benevolent and has, as advertised, found her. These events, however, merely constitute a prolonged introduction. The bulk of the film takes place years later, focusing on immigrant real-estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and her artist sister, Vera (Naya Rivera), with whom she has a strained relationship. Leigh has been hired to sell the now thoroughly haunted house in which the young woman used to live and, in the process of doing so, attracts the attention of the entity that possessed her.
Despite stealing from every haunted-house and demonic-possession film imaginable, the premise appears ambitious in its multi-generational, decades-spanning scope. It’s a bold move for McCarthy to use a supernatural antagonist as the catalyst for what promises initially to be a story about three women trying to figure out their place in the world. The first act even pays lip service to some potentially meaty thematic concerns, particularly the double-edged nature of intense familial bonds, and the dreams and disappointments attendant to the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, the character-driven approach teased by these glimmers of substance are soon abandoned in favor of an overlong middle section that consists almost exclusively of one or other of the women creeping around a dark house or apartment as the demon skulks in the shadows.
McCarthy has a legitimate talent for staging these sequences. His compositions are meticulously designed and awash in shadow, frequently leaving key swathes of space obscured or out of sight, prompting imaginative speculation about what might lie just beyond a character’s field of vision. Jump scares abound, but they rarely feel unearned. Special effects are used with vicious economy, ably complementing the cinematography and the disquieting, near-subliminal drone that overlays the soundtrack during the set pieces. Ultimately, though, the overuse of such scenes starts to rob them of their effectiveness. With so much time spent on the women’s inexplicable perambulations through haunted environs, there’s little scope for building character or resolving emotional conflicts, let alone following up on the ideas tossed around before the jump scares started to drop. By the time the film winds down to a nonsensical copout of an ending that plunders both Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, it feels like little more than a haunted-house attraction, a series of random shocks to the system that add up to precisely nothing.