Review: 'At the Devil's Door' Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno and Ashley Rickards

Money is quite literally the root of all evil in Nicholas McCarthy's unpredictable paranormal horror, At the Devil's Door (available now On Demand), a film that manages to pull a few surprises out of familiar genre elements. Drenched in ominous atmosphere, McCarthy proves his well-received breakthrough with The Pact was no fluke, and emboldened by past success he takes some narrative gambles that pay off in unexpected ways. Part Paranormal Activity, part Rosemary's Baby, it's never clear where the story is headed from one moment to the next, and that's enjoyable enough you don't notice the lack of scares.

The opening prelude leads you to believe At the Devil's Door will be just another common demon possession story. Set some time in the recent past, rebellious teenager Hannah (Ashley Rickards) is convinced by her young lover to sell her soul for a wad of cash. Little does she know that money is cursed literally to Hell, the contract sealed with a literal shout at the crossroads, just like in the old voo-doo legends. Fast forward to the present and we meet Leigh (Oscar-nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno), a hard-working and responsible real estate agent looking to sell a destitute couple's haunted home. McCarthy weaves a touch of family drama into the mix with the introduction of Leigh's artist sister, Vera (Naya Rivera), who is on the verge of opening her own show. Right away we sense tension between the siblings, but McCarthy keeps it at bay. Their parents are dead, the sisters don't see one another often enough, and Leigh is quick to stress the lack of family they have left. When Leigh goes to check the home out, odds things begin to occur. A girl in an ominous red hoodie (could it be Hannah??) is lurking in the shadows, but she's hardly the worst thing overstaying its welcome. Moreno and Rivera are convincing enough that when tragedy strikes and Vera is suddenly thrust into the protagonist role, we're willing to go along for the ride.

It's when Vera takes over that McCarthy takes his greatest risk, essentially starting over from scratch with a story that feels completely different than what came before.  While the first half resembled an exorcism film, McCarthy throws satanic births and devilish children at us for the finale, and it's downright weird. Despite the pleasure of being kept on our toes one can't help but feel the characters we spent so much time with were still given short shrift, and it takes time between each "segment" (it is sort of episodic) to get acquainted with the new heroine. But McCarthy handles each transition well, helped by three understated but affecting performances by his leads. Rivera has the toughest job by far as her section of the film is campier where the others are more reserved. Some camera trickery during a sonogram proves to be the movie's only real scare, though, and genre fans may be disappointed by that. But to McCarthy's credit, nothing in At the Devil's Door unfolds as we are trained to expect. It starts with the three central characters that aren't your typical screaming damsels, and extends to McCarthy's use of practical effects and utter lack of "found footage". McCarthy deserves a ton of praise for trying something new, and hopefully he'll keep it up because horror could use a few more films like At the Devil's Door.

 Rating: 3.5 out of 5