J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Diabolical: Home Sweet Horror

Madison is a conscientious mother, but since the death of her emotionally disturbed husband, she has been saddled with a difficult mortgage and a problem child. Unfortunately, she cannot sell her son Jacob, because that would be wrong, or her house, because it is haunted. The family is stuck between a rock and a supernatural place in Alistair Legrand’s The Diabolical (trailer here), which opens this Friday in select theaters.

By now, Madison, Jacob, and his younger sister Haley fully accept they are living in a haunted house. They have simply seen too much, too frequently, to remain in denial. Madison has brought in paranormal researchers, but they have all beat hasty retreats. So who’s she gonna call? Maybe Nikolai, Jacob’s cool science teacher, who she has been seeing on the sly.

Unfortunately, when it rains for Madison, it pours. Just as Jacob was finishing his mandated counseling sessions for his last “incident,” he launches into another fight at school. Ostensibly, she seems to catch a break when her mortgage company offers to buy back her house at favorable terms as part of a dodgy development scheme. However, an unseen force refuses to let Jacob and Haley leave the property, attacking their nervous systems as soon as they advance past the front porch.

Actually, things are not what they seem in Diabolical, but it would be telling to explain how so. Technically, we have seen all the elements Legrand eventually reveals in some form or another in any number of previous films, but he gives them all a deeply sinister twist, while telegraphing absolutely nothing. His execution is unusually tense and creepy. With co-writer Luke Harvis, Legrand taps into the current mortgage-based economic anxieties, without overplaying the topicality card. Viewers just get a visceral sense Madison is physically and emotionally trapped in that house.

Despite still looking like a supermodel, Ali Larter is quite compelling as Madison. Frankly, her work as the anxiety and guilt-ridden mother compares favorably with Essie Davis in the over-hyped Babadook. (The Diabolical addresses similar themes, but does a better job taking care of the genre business.) Arjun Gupta’s work as Nikolai is also notable for its subtlety and intelligence, especially when grading on a horror movie curve.

This is turning out to be a very strong season for horror films—and The Diabolical definitely reinforces and advances that trend. Larter and Gupta show actors can still ply their craft in genre films, while Legrand maintains a distinctively uncanny atmosphere. Recommended with enthusiasm for horror fans, The Diabolical opens tomorrow (10/16) in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema and also releases on iTunes.

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