The third cold, constantly rainy day in a row, and I find myself watching Nicholas McCarthy's At The Devil's Door yet again--a female Antichrist narrative with the same sort of feel as Ti West's House of the Devil, but far more modernized (obviously, given House is a period piece both in front of and behind the camera). Part of At The Devil's Door definitely takes place in the 1980s, or appears to; there's a diagetic song used as part of the action that has a serious New Wave vibe, "Break Under Pressure" by Jerry's Diner, though it seems to have been composed directly for the soundtrack. But with his non-linear story-chunking and frames inside of frames, McCarthy appears to be going for something larger than West is, something almost...operatic, or at least comic book-like. The not-quite-God's-eye POV of a being operating from outside space and time, perhaps.
Before we go much further, I'm going to punch the thematic elephant in the room right in the face: this is a story conceived and executed by a male writer/director that revolves around female loss of agency, specifically of the sort that comes from rape and forced pregnancy run through a supernatural filter. On the one hand, this is the sort of narrative we see all the time, culturally--women reduced to their parts, their childbearing potential. But the reason these things keep getting name-checked in horror is that they're frankly pretty horrifying, and I say that as someone who consented to carrying a parasitical creature inside myself for nine months. There's a caesarian section sequence which looks very familiar to me, but then again, I also lived through the era of Jack Chick and his proselytizing tracts, the post-Rosemary's Baby/Omen/Amityville Horror movies era in which the Devil was a constant presence, a serious possibility. So there are other sequences which ring just as "true," even though they're not things I've ever experienced directly: the shifts, the skews, the loops and impossibilities. Those nightmare moments when Hannah, our initial protagonist, becomes alienated from her own body and feels something else slip inside.
We begin with Hannah (raccoon-eyed, Joan Jett shag-cut Ashley Rickards), young and in love, whose California vacation boyfriend suggests she can make an easy $500 by playing out his crazy uncle's favourite urban legend scenario: sell your soul, or pretend to; go down to "where the roads meet" and say your name, "so he'll known who to call for when he comes." One cut later, she's back at home admiring the bright red high-tops she just bought when a voice does indeed seem to speak to her, and her life starts unravelling overnight.
Then we pop forward into the future, where the current economic downturn is driving workaholic Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) to become the best junior realtor possible. She's approached to sell a house that turns out the be the same one Hannah used to live in, and on her first appraisal visit, she sees Hannah herself standing in the living room in an equally bright red slicker, dripping rain. Hannah runs off, and Leigh simply assumes she must be the family's missing daughter, mentioned during their initial interview.
Leigh's little sister Vera (Naya Rivera) is a defiantly solitary, loft-dwelling artist--"kind of dark," as Leigh proclaims, her tone both proud and slightly sad. Leigh can't have children and knows it, but hopes Vera eventually will, though the likelihood seems low; their parents are dead, and Leigh's slight accent vs. Vera's complete lack of same tells a subtextual story about immigration, Americanization, orphans who became everything to each other, only to be riven apart when one was forced to take on the parental role. Leigh admires but judges Vera, whiles Vera resents yet loves Leigh, and their bond is palpable, even in their smallest interactions.
When Leigh returns to the house, however, she finds Hannah there again--wet, silent, apparently traumatized. She makes small talk, telling Hannah about Vera, then calls the couple she believes to be Hannah's parents...who tell her they've already found their daughter. Looking through the property file, she finds an article dated at least fifteen years previous talking about Hannah's suicide and follows her through the house, demanding an explanation. Instead, Hannah lets her head first loll, then begin to separate from her body; Leigh, horrified, falls to the ground, has a heart attack and dies right there, her last fading sight the vision of Hannah splitting in two and falling away to disclose a gigantic shadow-figure, its head crowned with a curling rack of horns.
It falls to Vera to investigate both Leigh's death and, as an adjunct, Hannah's, which leads her to Hannah's former best friend, now a suburban homemaker aware that "there are bad things in the world." According to the friend, Hannah became convinced she was stalked and occasionally inhabited by the creature her boyfriend's uncle said would come to her, a being that "wanted to be all of someone." Her parents thought she killed herself because she was pregnant, as a used test found in the house confirmed, but Hannah was a virgin--a vessel, a "work-around for the Left-hand path," as the uncle once claimed. She killed herself so that this thing inside her would be trapped, at which point it took on her form, haunting the house it was trapped in. But now, knowing Vera's name, it sees a way out.
And so it goes. The denouement is fairly predictable, in the same primal way most fairytales are: Vera fights but is overcome, thrown headlong through a window only to wake up eight months later, pregnant as hell. After glimpsing her tormentor's face on the ultrasound, she demands the hospital perform an immediate c-section and gives the child up, closes out Leigh's home, packs her car, drives off. But six years later, she can't quite help herself: she contacts the child's single mother, asks to visit. She wants to confront the demon within, demand answers, take revenge...but who can kill a child, even one so overtly wrong? Unlike Damien Thorn, Vera's nameless daughter doesn't even pretend to be human, simply giving Vera every opportunity to choose for herself--exercise free will. She gambles that Vera will choose like a person, not an angel or a God, and her trust pays out; evil wins.
Or, maybe, individuality.
The film fascinates, at least for me. Technically, it's gorgeous, sustaining a penetrating mood of dread throughout, and the foregone conclusion doesn't disappoint. There's a sort of beauty to it. Which is why I upgraded my score to five today, from four: At The Devil's Door is exactly what it sets out to be, in every way. I can't fault it for that.