A scene from AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR

At the Devil’s Door

United States. Directed by Nicholas McCarthy, 2014. Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera, Ashley Rickards. 91 minutes.

Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy builds At the Devil’s Door with a venerable old trope. He starts with a teenaged girl named Heather (Ashley Rickards) selling her soul to the devil for $500.

I’ll give McCarthy some credit: at least he’s taking the hoary and overused and trying to employ it in a slightly different way, as he did with his earlier film, The Pact. A single shell game in 1987 ends up butterfly-affecting lives decades down the road. Real-estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) ends up hired to sell the house Heather character grew up in, and finds herself at the mercy of an evil force; and Leigh’s involvement draws in her free-spirited artist sister Vera (Naya Rivera). Okay, the setup has some promise.

As with The Pact, the problem is story development. My biggest issue is that the film doesn’t seem to have a protagonist, but it doesn’t feel like an ensemble piece, either. The film’s pacing is like driving an old car with a bad transmission: it rarely picks up enough speed to carry the audience along, and even when it does, it’ll soon start coughing and sputtering and slowing down. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that whenever something interesting starts happening, you’ve only got a couple of minutes before the story’s focus shifts to something entirely different that’s less compelling, usually something from earlier in the film that you forgot about.

A lot of this comes from the characterization. I have no doubt that McCarthy thinks he’s writing strong female characters, but he’s really not. He’s writing watered-down, cliché-ridden carbon-copies of strong female characters and relying on the actresses to do the heavy lifting. (Again, he did this with The Pact, and I promise that’s the last time I’ll make the comparison.) I spent much of Rickards’s scenes wondering if she was going to have more than one facial expression. Eventually I realized that the problem was that Heather isn’t the sort of girl who has more than one facial expression, and that Rickards was coping as best she could. In retrospect, she’s the most memorable thing about the film, although that probably doesn’t say much since one of my “types” is apparently angry brunettes with ’80s hair.

It’s up to Sandino Moreno and Rivera to carry the film, and they have their work cut out for them. Vera’s character is so cookie-cutter that you can figure out what conversations she’s going to have before she even has them. (When her latest one-night stand approaches her at a showing, I thought, “This is the point where he asks if he can see her again; she says no, and doesn’t even bother to let him down gently.” Which is exactly what happened.) When she says she’s never going to get married and have kids, even though her tone says she doesn’t really want a family, you know she really does because this is just not the kind of movie that would allow her to not secretly crave a husband and rugrats. And she gets off easy compared to Sandino Moreno: the sum total of Leigh’s characterization appears to be “Latina, accent, real estate agent, wants sister to have family.”

And it’s a shame, because Sandino Moreno, Rivera and Rickards deserve a lot better than this. They’re not the sole reason I didn’t walk away from the film in disgust: there are some great visuals and two or three scenes that are genuinely freaky. But it’s hard to not be disappointed with At the Devil’s Door on the whole.

At the Devil's Door poster