A great many horror films divide critics, but it’s rare that one divides the same critic. Two years ago, writer-director Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact did just that: expanded from his own short film, it was seen by many as a classic “curate’s egg” movie – some of it was rotten, but parts of it were excellent. I thought it was a great deal better than most critics gave it credit for, and certainly proved a few things about McCarthy:
(1) he’s a better director than he is screenwriter;
(2) he knows how to direct actors, especially female ones;
(3) he can get new mileage out of old ideas;
(4) he can make a modest budget look like a million bucks;
My feeling was that if The Pact had come out of Spain or Mexico (El Pacto?), it would have been far better received, its clunkier dialogue being easier on the eye (i.e. as subtitles) than the ear. (Maybe I’ll dig out a Spanish dub of the film to test my theory.) Still, those that liked the film will have been looking forward to his sophomore effort, which began life under the title Home before being retitled (for its recent US VOD release) At the Devil’s Door. (It played FrightFest as Home, but since that is the new name of a big new CG animation release from 20th Century Fox, it’s unclear what the UK title will ultimately be.) Of course, a turkey by any other name would smell as fowl, so is Home/At the Devil’s Door any good? The answer is a qualified yes.
Some critics argued that The Pact would have worked better as a short (it was, in fact, expanded from one), so perhaps it was sensible that McCarthy’s new film feels like a anthology of sorts, with three separate story strands. The first concerns Hannah (Awkward‘s Ashley Rickards), who agrees to play a game with her boyfriend’s devilish uncle, which may or not involve selling her soul for five hundred bucks. The second, primary story strand sees real estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno, so good in Maria Full of Grace and in everything since) preparing a property for sale, when she is startled by a young girl in a red raincoat (note to filmmakers: it’s time retire this hoary old horror reference) who may or may not be the girl from Act I. Thirdly, there’s the story of Leigh’s sister Vera (Glee‘s Naya Rivera), whose role cannot really be revealed without spoilers.
Sometimes the three separate stories interweave successfully, other times less so; but when Home works, it does so brilliantly. McCarthy has a knack for turning ordinary suburbia into something uniquely terrifying, and a particular gift for unsettling the audience with things like blaring home security alarms, spreading a pervasive sense of unease, menace and malevolence which, sadly, is undermined by some less convincing elements (you’ll know them when you see them.) McCarthy is still a better director than he is screenwriter, so perhaps his wisest move would be to make his third film from somebody else’s script. Someone with such Fingerspitzengefühl for the horror genre really shouldn’t be hamstrung by substandard writing, even if it’s their own.