Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Nicholas McCarthy loves bringing your little sister’s favorite TV actresses to the dark side. In his 2012 debut feature, The Pact, the indie writer-director put Caity Lotz, otherwise known as Sara “The Canary” Lance on The CW’s Arrow, through a supernatural whirlwind. She was cast as a woman investigating her sister’s disappearance inside her childhood home that may or may not be both haunted and ripe for more death. It’s an unconventional, effectively creepy little horror flick, but with his sophomore film, McCarthy’s upped the stakes tenfold and doubled his small-screen talent quotient.
At the Devil’s Door, available today through IFC Midnight’s VOD service, gives Glee's Naya Rivera and MTV’s Awkward’s Ashley Rickards the opportunity to leave their high school antics behind for some old-fashioned Satanism. McCarthy’s three-narrative script is unusual. Rickards plays a young girl who, because she’s sprung off a new boyfriend, haphazardly decides to sell her soul to the devil; Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno is Leigh, a real estate agent tasked whose latest must-sell home has quite a few horrific secrets, one of which reveals itself to her right away; and Rivera, meanwhile, is Moreno’s younger sister, Vera, a free-spirited artist who has no desire to get domesticated, even though Leigh has specific reasons for wanting Vera to start a family.
Hovering over the three characters is, as the title suggests, Lucifer himself, and McCarthy doesn’t hold anything back. The devil is seen throughout the film, accentuating At the Devil’s Door’s tense and bleak energy. It’s a horror movie for people who don’t like to laugh much. Basically, it’s the anti-Glee. Fans of McKinley High’s New Directions won’t know what hit them.
Here, McCarthy discusses At the Devil Door’s subversive casting, as well as the un-formulaic script’s influences, where his kind of horror fits into today’s genre landscape, and how he almost remade every horror writer’s cinematic Holy Grail.
You initially came up with At the Devil’s Door immediately following The Pact’s Sundance premiere in 2012, right?
Yeah, I was in a taxi heading back to the condo I was staying at, after The Pact's premiere. The driver asked me, “What are you here for?” And I said, “Oh, I’m here for this movie The Pact,” and he said, “Is it about a pact with the devil?” I responded, “No, it’s about a pact between a mother and a brother, but ‘pact’ is a great, powerful word to use as a title.” Then he said, without hesitation, “I made a pact with the devil.” [Laughs.] I kind of paused and asked him to tell me about it. He proceeded to tell me that where he grew up in Chile, there were friends of his who dared him to sell his soul to this witchdoctor. He took the dare because he wanted to show how fearless he was, and then when he was going through this ritual with the witchdoctor guy, he started to get more and more nervous that maybe he’d made the wrong decision. Finally at the end, the guy said, “Tell me your name,” and and the guy said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And the witchdoctor said, “So he knows your name when he calls for you.” [Laughs.]
The guy’s name was Enrique, and he claims that later that night, when he went home, he was sitting in his kitchen and he heard his name called from upstairs, but when he went upstairs there was nobody there. This guy finished telling me the story as I sat in the back of this cab idling in front of the condo I was staying at, and I remember I asked, “So what happened then?” He said, “Well, I’m a cab driver in Utah—nothing’s happened.” [Laughs.]
I just knew it was a scene from a horror movie I’d never seen, in some ways. It was this very strange little ghost story. Pretty soon after premiering The Pact, I really wanted to go and write another movie, so I went up to a cabin in the woods, literally, and started to write this movie, and that, of course, became the first scene in the film.
Before SXSW this year, I spoke with the Midnighters section’s programmer, Jarod Neece, and he told me about how your film has one of the coolest opening scenes he’s seen in a horror movie in a long time. It's a strange, effective opener, and to hear that it comes from someone’s real-life experience makes sense—it’s a set-up and a trope we’ve seen done in movies like this before, but its progression of events is so interesting and unique that it could only come from real life.
Yeah, and the guy who plays the agent of Satan, the actor Michael Massee, was in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The whole odd structure of At the Devil’s Door was inspired by Lost Highway, in an oblique way. It’s the idea of two people being central to the story and the feeling that the film has been split in two, into two different eras.
When you went to that cabin to start writing, did you already have the two-timeline and multiple-protagonist structure in mind, or did that happen organically once you’d written that opening scene?
Well, the big secret to the movie is that it actually has the same plot as The Pact, which is the same plot as Psycho. Psycho, if you strip it down, is about this woman who’s murdered and disappeared, and her sister comes to look for her and discovers the horror of the situation. So The Pact was a movie I used that structure, where [actress] Caity Lotz comes to look for her sister and ends up finding out she’s been killed, and I’d still been thinking about Psycho as this movie that’s stuck in my craw all this time. I thought, and this is a big Spoiler Alert for anyone who hasn’t seen At the Devil’s Door yet, what it would mean to kill off a character halfway through the movie? I’d thought about doing that for a long time, so then I said, “OK, what if I use the same structure as Psycho?” That’s why the characters are named after the actresses in Psycho, Vera Miles and Janet Leigh.
There was that idea, and then I had this idea about a person who’d sell their soul, and that’s where the teenage girl character came from. So they just ended up mixing together in some unique way. The unique part of it was the important part of it. This is a movie where I tried to take chances and wouldn’t be afraid of failing. There was gonna be some way we could tell these three stories and have the audience be hooked. I’d like to think that a lot of people are going to watch this movie and not even think about it’s unique structure. They’ll follow it like any other regular horror movie. In some ways, those are the horror movies I love the most, the ones that just tell stories and don’t need to be flashy or announce their uniqueness at all.
The reason why the structure’s been such a talking point for me is that I had a similar experience trying to describe this movie to someone as I did with The Pact. Rather than trivialize it as just “someone sells their soul to the devil and scary stuff happens,” I wanted to be more detailed, and I noticed that between this and The Pact, you don’t make movies that can be easily explained in one boiler-point sentence. And that’s a compliment.
It’s funny, you’ve reminded me of when they did the trailer for The Pact. I remember thinking, wow, this trailer is giving away almost everything in the movie. [Laughs.] They gave away nearly all of the scares we’d designed for that movie, but what they didn’t give away, thankfully, was the big third-act twist. I was happy about that; the whole sub-genre of paranormal/J-horror ghost stories has such a familiarity to it now, but there are so many of them I love. I like the idea that you can sit down to watch a movie, feel like you know the parameters, you get the sense that you know where you are, but then it takes you in directions you weren’t expecting.
My whole life, I’ve loved those moments in movies when the whole world turns upside down. When I was very young, there was that scene in the movie When a Stranger Calls, the very famous prologue, right? With that actress Carol Kane, and the whole “the call’s coming from inside the house!” When I was, say, 9 years old, I was like, “Oh my God!” [Laughs.] The idea of pulling the rug out from under the audience and kind of announcing that you’re almost in a completely different now is something I think is great. It’s not always a conscious decision when I’m writing—I kind of just try to stay impulsive as I write and then I find those moments. And, again, especially for this movie, it’s about trying to be fearless and seeing how many of those moments we can have and not to go to that other place in your mind where you ask yourself, “How can we make this more commercial?”
That When a Stranger Calls scene relates to the end of At the Devil’s Door’s second act, as well as The Pact’s second act. Before I ever saw When a Stranger Calls, I already knew about that big scene with Carol Kane, and I’d always just assumed that it was the movie’s big climax, its final scene. But it’s not, it’s the opening. That’s an interesting way to approach storytelling.
Exactly! You have a good point. Unfortunately, with When a Stranger Calls, you have to watch the rest of the movie. [Laughs.]
Seriously, the rest of that movie kind of sucks.
Pretty much. Hopefully you can ratchet up the rest of your film a notch, though, when you have scenes like that. When we were shooting the climax of this movie, with Naya Rivera in that kind of chase scene, it was a big question: Will this be satisfying? Is this the biggest and grandest place we can go, knowing what the final beat of the movie’s going to be? The movie’s final beat isn’t a high-five moment. But, again, I’m excited to take those chances. Even though it was a very hard movie to make, because it’s very ambitious and we didn’t have much money or time, I’m very proud of doing it and I can really attribute so much of what’s successful about the movie to my core crew, who I’ve been working with since the short films I made before The Pact. They all want to just jump in with me and do this stuff.
You mentioned how you didn’t want to make any commercial adjustments to this film, but there’s an interesting duality at play with it. The material is really dark and uncommercial, yet it stars Naya Rivera and Ashley Rickards, who are on two of the most commercial and upbeat shows on television, Glee and Awkward. Admittedly, when I saw their names attached to it in the SXSW announcements, I thought, um, I don’t know about a horror movie with someone from Glee. Was that duality part of the appeal of casting them?
Well, I had never seen Glee or Awkward before I met Ashley or Naya. I just approached meeting them as, you know, a director would to an actor. Do they seem like the right people for these parts? But then, I have to admit, becoming familiar with what their shows were, there’s something kind of subversive about it. Frankly, this isn’t your everyday horror movie, and I’d like to believe that there’s a lot of young fans of both of those actors who might get something they normally don’t get from watching this movie. That’s exciting to me, and they both do a greta job. So it wasn’t intentionally subversive, but I do like think, yeah, it’s the girl from Glee and we throw her out of a window. [Laughs.]
And Ashley, specifically, is night and day in this film compared to Awkward, both in the role’s physical demands and the creep-out factor it requires.
[Laughs.] You know, Ashley is very serious about what she does. She’s the youngest of everyone in the cast, besides Ava [Acres], the little girl. Ashley had been in an independent film [Fly Away] that played at SXSW a couple years back, and she plays an autistic character in it. I had seen that film when her name came up for my movie, and I could tell from that performance that she’s really committed, and, sure enough, you’d turn on the camera and Ashley would immediately go so hard. It was crazy—she’d be possessed, literally and figuratively.
And also, by the way, if they’re TV actors, it means they’re incredible professionals, because they’ve done so much work in front of a camera.
I read somewhere that, because of her vocal/singing commitments to Glee, Naya Rivera couldn’t scream while filming your movie until the end of the shoot. Is that true?
[Laughs.] Yeah, obviously Naya’s vocal chords are a precious commodity to not only her but to her agents and managers and the producers and writers of Glee. We had one shot in the movie where she was to scream, and we saved that until literally her final set-up. There was so much anticipation; you hear the scream in the film, and she let it rip. She definitely proved that she could have another career as a ‘scream queen’ in that moment.
It must be interesting for an actor to sign up for a horror movie like this without being able to scream.
Everyone is aware, in some ways, of the cliches of making horror films while they’re making a horror film. But this movie was unique and just slight off-center and a little bit bizarre. The actors were really kind of deep inside their work. Most of it is pretty intense, so it’s sometimes hard to keep a straight face when you’re doing this stuff for a long time. My reaction, though, when something is particularly scary or disturbing, is to start laughing while we’re shooting. Which isn’t always the best thing for your actors. [Laughs.] It’s fun to make horror movies, even ones that are disturbing and intense. This was technically a hard movie to make, but I wouldn’t take anything back.
What makes At the Devil’s Door so intense is its sound design, which instantly creates this heavy mood of dread and never lets up. It’s that thumping bass-line and keeps the tense sound cues going from start to finish. It reminds a lot of what I like about Rob Zombie’s films or the great French horror film Inside, which you’re also a big fan of, right?
We just followed our instincts on how we wanted it to feel from moment to moment, and the movie ended up being pretty unforgiving sonically. There’s a relationship in horror films between the musical soundtracks and the sound design, with the sound effects; at the best moments in this movie, those two things are falling all over each other. That’s something that’s unique about horror films.
I should say, too, when we were putting temporary music into the film as a guide for our composer, we used the soundtrack to Inside, Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s movie. And then Julien came to SXSW this year to premiere their new film, Among the Living; I know those guys from when I went to Paris last year and was actually trying to remake their second film, Livid.
Oh, really? I didn’t know you were attached to the Livid remake.
Yeah, I was supposed to direct it but it didn’t happen. I was really excited about that project—I idolize those guys and love their films. Julien came and saw my movie at SXSW, and I sat with him. It was one of the high points in my career so far, getting to ask him, once the movie ended, “So, what do you think?” And, in his amazing French accent, he said, “That devil! Nick, that devil is amazing!” [Laughs.]
What I admire about those guys is that, with Inside, there was this feeling that these guys could be the next punk pioneers of genre cinema, because that movie is so simple. But they’ve followed through with their interests and ideas about doing things that are unusual; they’ve kind of gone down a rabbit hole that I think is really interesting. They want to make movies that are a little more difficult and take chances. I hope they can continue to make movies, but it’s tough over there in France for those guys.
It’s a shame that your Livid remake couldn’t happen—now that I’m thinking about it, I can totally see your sensibilities working really well for that film. What happened with that project?
It was never announced that I was attached to it, but I was sure that it was going to be my third feature. That was the movie, though, where I realized that you can never be sure about anything. [Laughs.] I’m learning that all of those cliches are true. The remake had a couple of really good producers and it was written by a guy named David Burke, who’s the guy who wrote 13 Sins, which also premiered at SXSW this year. He’s a genius and kind of took Julien and Alexandre’s movie and made some kind of sense of it, but didn’t homogenize it in any way. I guess one of the reasons why I was so excited about it was that I’ve always wanted to do a vampire movie, and this was one that had a really insane third-act twist. We thought it was all set to go, but then, you know, everything fell through. [Laughs.] I’d still love to do it, but now I’m not formally attached to it anymore, which just means that that piece of paper has expired.
A shame, too, but let’s get back to happier topics.
[Laughs.] Thanks, it’s still a sore spot. Nobody will ever call their original Livid a perfect movie, but there are so many interesting things in it. In some ways, my reasoning for doing the Livid remake was to make an American response to the things they’ve been doing in France.
Getting back into At the Devil’s Door, a byproduct of the film’s nonstop sound design is that it makes the film’s quote-unquote “jump scare” moments all the more effective. There’s no moment where the music stops, a character slowly approaches something, and then comes the obvious jump scare. At the Devil’s Door’s sound design is so constant that it keeps you on edge and doesn’t signal any impending jolts. Is that by design on your end?
Well, jump scares get a really bad reputation from horror fans. I absolutely understand why, and I think there’s a very specific reason for it. When horror movies got popular for the studios to make, you had all these people making horror movies who had no business making horror movies. A lot of these executives would go in to the editing rooms and they’d manufacture these jump scares. Though some of them are effective in the room, I think an audience—especially the horror audience, who cares deeply about this stuff—knows when they’ve been cheated. They know when they’ve been swindled. So jump scares became that thing that was indicative of a bad horror movie in the 21st century.
For me, maybe because I’m out of step, I’ve always looked at the tradition of jump scares as, though they really began in the ‘40s with Val Lewton’s films, they really came into their own in the ‘70s. Those moments in, say, Jaws, when the head pops out of the boat, or the jumps in An American Werewolf in London, were incredibly gripping moments in movies I’ll never forget. They were part of the tools these filmmakers, Steven Spielberg and John Landis, had, and I always admired a good director when they could pull something like that off.
I’m a fan of jump scares. There’s the one in At the Devil’s Door, which, of course, is featured in the trailer. [Laughs.] Because they just had to feature it in the trailer at the end. That’s my homage to the jump scare in Jaws when the head pops out of the hull of the boat, because that’s such a classic moment in horror cinema. It’s all about carefully engineering them, from when you shoot it to when you cut it and then when you sound-design it. I learned that from reading about how Spielberg shot that scene 18 different ways and then picked the one that made people jump the most. That’s exactly what we did with our devil—we shot him popping out 20 different ways and then, in the edit room, we worked it like it was a science project.
That moment works so well in At the Devil’s Door because it’s not a cheat—it’s the movie’s actual villain who’s doing the scare. The worst ones are when it’s just a cat or a dog’s bark, or a book falling off of a shelf, and has nothing to do with anything else in the movie. Those are the ones that give jump scares such a bad rep.
Definitely. It’s funny, one of my favorite early jump scares in movies is in the original The Thing, the 1951 one directed by Howard Hawks. It’s where they’re tracking the creature; we’ve only seen in in the shadows at this point, we haven’t gotten a good look at it, and they have a tracker on it. They’re walking through this hallway and when they come up to this closed door, the tracker they’re holding starts beeping. They point at the door and say, “OK, we’re going to open this door! The thing is here!” And then they open the door and it is there. And it scares the shit out of you. [Laughs.] I remember the first time I saw that, I went, “How did they make that scary?” I think the reason why that’s scary is you’ve spent 45 minutes of the movie opening doors where nothing is there.
You seem to have a similar approach and sensibility to jump scares as James Wan, who’s done them so effectively in Insidious and The Conjuring. There’s that great scene in The Conjuring where the cop is investigating a strange noise at the front of the house—you know something’s going to pop out at him, and, indeed, something does, but it still makes you lift a few feet off the ground.
Yeah, when I saw The Conjuring, especially the first half of that movie, I really identified with it. I felt like he was doing things in that movie that were totally effective and things I never would’ve came up with, but, at the same time, we’re channeling something similar in our work.
Absolutely, and those shared sensibilities aren’t the norm in horror nowadays, in how patient you guys are but also how you balance that patience out with strong mood and legitimate creepiness. Do you make your horror films as any kind of response to what’s going on in horror lately?
No, I don’t make the movies in response to anything. I do try to see as many contemporary horror movies as I can, but I was raised as a first-generation teenage where the VCR was in everyone’s home. So, for me, horror movies aren’t just what’s being made today. A lot of movies that influenced At the Devil’s Door are older movies. I’ve always felt that older movies are just as relevant today as they were when they opened—they’re just as relevant as new ones. But also, it’s always nice to sit down, watch a new horror movie, and see something exciting happen that’s been created by a contemporary, young horror filmmaker. They’re out there, too. I mentioned Julien and Alexandre, and when I went to remake one of their movies, it was partly as an homage to something exciting that’s happening now in horror cinema.
The genre is in a good place. There are a lot of horror films that get made. There are cycles, when some films are able to make it into theaters and others aren’t. But if there are horror fans complaining that there aren’t any good horror movies now, that’s probably because there are so many of them now. In this century, though, which is what I’d group modern horror into, there have been some really greta horror movies, and hopefully I can contribute something to that. I certainly don’t want to stop making them. That’s a question I’ve often gotten; in some ways, some directors expect to make one horror movie and then move on from the genre, like it’s porn or something. [Laughs.] I love the genre.
At the Devil's Door is available on VOD today, via IFC Midnight, and will open in limited theatrical release on September 12.