The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


At the Devil's Door

At the Devil's Door is an unusual horror film in that it reinvents itself as it goes along. Actually, “reinvents” might be the wrong term. “Evolves” is a little better. The movie begins with some slow-burn suspense, then embraces some of the tropes of the paranormal thriller, and eventually becomes a full-on shock show with an intriguing theme about the nature and persistence of evil. And it all works! Containing some genuinely gutsy, unexpected twists, At the Devil's Door cheerfully plays with your expectations, pulling the rug out from under you whenever it damn well pleases.

It begins with a real estate agent named Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno). She's been assigned to sell a house. Seems pretty routine. When she goes there to check the place out, though, there's a mysterious girl in a hoodie hanging around, plus some weird black stuff around one of the door frames. She tells the owners about what she saw. They largely ignore the black stuff, but say the girl is probably their missing daughter. Of course it's not that simple. Leigh confides some of her concerns to her sister Vera, played by Glee's Naya Rivera.

You know what? I'm going to stop right there. I went into At the Devil's Door with no advance knowledge of its plot, and this is definitely the way for you to go, too. What matters is that what you think will happen does not. In fact, something very different happens, again and again. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy displays a strong sense of precision here. What I mean by that is he keeps his cards close, waiting for the exact right moment to spring a surprise or an unanticipated shift in direction. McCarthy holds things for several beats longer than expected. Sometimes he hits the scare beats early. This technique keeps the viewer off balance, while also creating an anything-can-happen vibe that becomes increasingly unsettling the longer the movie goes on.

At the Devil's Door also excels in creating a sense of mounting tension. As more information about what's happening is revealed, the implications become more horrific. One of the movie's most chilling scenes involves a bunch of characters in a room with a television monitor off to the side. There's a lot of mayhem going on, but you know the monitor is where the terror will truly be revealed, and so you watch that monitor. You anxiously await what might be there. You dread it. At the Devil's Door has several moments just like that, moments that make your nerve endings stand up. It is a magnificently creepy film.

It's also a smart one. At the Devil's Door eerily suggests that evil, in its purest form, has a survival instinct. It doesn't want to be vanquished, and so it finds ways to perpetuate itself. While the evil depicted is clearly fictional, there's a lot of truth to that concept, which gives the movie a sense of relevance that many horror flicks lack. Sometimes it seems that evil breeds evil - as in copycat crimes, for instance. Other times, it seems as though no matter how much you fight the front line of it, there are more lines in the back that you didn't see (e.g. terrorism). Those are my comparisons, not the film's, yet there's no denying that a big part of what makes At the Devil's Door successful is that it has a finger on the pulse of something.

This is also one of the best-acted fright films to come along in a while. Catalina Sandino Moreno and Naya Rivera give strong performances. These characters are not your typical run-and-scream heroines. They're smart, resourceful, and brave. The actresses bring emotional grounding to the movie that makes the scary parts even more impactful.

At the Devil's Door is a fine example of why I love horror. Done right, the genre can be thoughtful even as it is mercilessly rattling your chain. When it was over, I let out a big breath to release tension and thought, Wow, that was a good one!

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: At the Devil's Door premieres on demand August 8, and will open in select theaters on September 12.

At the Devil's Door is unrated, but contains adult language, violence, and shocking images. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.

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