Nicholas McCarthy made a modestly promising feature debut with 2012’s “The Pact,” which spun his earlier short into a slow-burner that wound up grossing nearly 20 times its $400,000 budget (nearly half of that in U.K. theaters) and spawned a just-released sequel. Rather than involving himself with the latter, McCarthy makes his follow-up with “At the Devil’s Door,” a similarly small-scale horror-thriller whose somewhat larger thematic ambitions — this time the menace isn’t just some serial killer and/or his ghost but apparently Beezlebub himself — the pic doesn’t ultimately have the large-enough canvas or ideas to pull off. Opening Sept. 26 at Hollywood’s Arena Cinema, it looks to make a minor theatrical impact, but should do OK in ancillary formats.
In the effective opening sequence, a teenager (Ashley Rickards, TV’s “Awkward”) is persuaded by a new boyfriend to play a Three-card Monte-type shell game with his creepy “uncle.” For this, she’ll get $500 … in exchange for her soul, we later realize, though she stops laughing off that absurd prospect a little too late. Having been determined “special,” she’s told she’ll be called for one day as designated vessel for an unnamed being. Next time we see her, she’s violently assaulted by an invisible presence in her bedroom.
Cut to newbie real-estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno), working in an environment of widespread foreclosures and economic hardships. A middle-aged couple who seem to be the parents of the earlier girl are eager to sell the house she’s since disappeared from. Disturbingly, Leigh has already seen a figure matching the missing youth’s description lurking about the now-empty home.
But McCarthy’s rather messily confusing rather than cleverly misleading script complicates this setup when we realize that one protagonist in fact committed suicide more than two decades earlier — until then, the pic hasn’t indicated it takes place in more than one time period — and that Leigh has evidently mistaken her for another, still-living troubled teen (Olivia Crocicchia). Then Leigh herself is abruptly yanked from the narrative, causing her somewhat antisocial artist sister, Vera (Naya Rivera, “Glee”), to investigate and become the third successive principal protagonist. It’s fairly clear by now that the evil at hand is a supernatural shapeshifter looking for an unwilling woman to bear its progeny — and in Vera, who vehemently opposes any commitment greater than a one-night-stand, it might have found the ideal victim.
As “The Pact” and prior shorts proved, McCarthy has an above-average feel for quiet, sinister atmospherics and realistic character dynamics. But the torch passing between heroines here feels more disjointed than inventive. We don’t get enough time to grow emotionally invested in any of them, and it’s disappointing that we end up stuck with Rivera’s Vera; while she’s a more complicated figure, those complexities aren’t explored, leaving her simply rather off-putting. There’s also unnecessary befuddlement between the teenagers played by Rickards and Crocicchia teenagers that is presumably deliberate, but poorly handled nonetheless.
Moment to moment, the pic is well handled, and there are strong sequences, notably an evening of babysitting in which we fear the “possessed” teen sitter might do anything to her infant charge, plus a jolting, fleeting (but still the pic’s longest) glimpse of the demon nemesis in a cupboard. But given that what’s at stake here is apparently nothing less than the birth of the Antichrist, “At the Devil’s Door” (which premiered at SXSW last spring under the title “Home”) ends up too tentative and underdeveloped, playing like an attenuated prologue for a bigger film. That’s underlined by the whimper-rather-than-bang fadeout of a tepid, “Omen”-echoing postscript.
Though disappointing content-wise, McCarthy’s sophomore feature still demonstrates admirable attention to things that usually suffer in more superficially flashy horror efforts, notably credible real-world backgrounding (the nondescript Southern California locations suggest a middle class slipping haplessly toward poverty), naturalistic perfs, and habit of favoring creepy restraint over “gotcha!” moments. (Still, the pic could have used one or two more of the latter.) Tech and design contributions are likewise thoughtful.