The Diabolical is the first – and oddly enough only – horror movie I’ve seen at SXSW that actually tries to be scary. More often than not at this year’s fest, we saw midnighters going for a creepy but never quite scary vibe (The Boy, The Frontier), attempting to be satirical (Ava’s Possessions, Excess Flesh) or just being batty, campy gorefests (Deathgasm, He Never Died, Turbo Kid). Though there are some potentially frightening aspects at play in The Diabolical, it fails to employ its scares effectively – opting for jump scares that rarely work out and a late stage science fiction twist that doesn’t come together either. The result is the most standardized and, by extension, the most boring midnighter of the fest, though definitely not the worst.
Ali Larter plays Madison, a single mother filing for bankruptcy and living under a possessed roof. As needy real estate goons (Patrick Fischler) haunt her with offers on her soon-to-be-foreclosed house, the real danger lies in three gooey spirits – all that look like Uruk Hai freshly born from their swampy wombs – who appear and disappear with the flash of a light. What are these spirits after, you may ask? Having seen the movie, I’m still not really sure. And herein lies the biggest problem of The Diabolical. After all is said and done, I’m still unsure of the point, the plot and some other factors to boot.
The Diabolical‘s most diabolical move was to make me sleepy (note however that I saw it in the middle of the day not after the midnight mark). And though my eyes may have fluttered through a detail of paramount importance, the questions the movie raises still feel squarely unanswerered. Consider, if one misses but a small detail and it rocks the rest of the film, what does that say about the movie itself?
Though admirable for its deliciously grotesque practical creature design, there’s no real compelling thread to keep you engaged beyond an exhaustingly clichéd tendency to try and “get ya” with jump scare moments. “It’s scary because you didn’t expect to see a monster there!” Gettit?
There’s a sweetly sad subplot between Madison’s tween-age son Jacob (Max Rose) and daughter Hayley (Chloe Perrin), the former of which has been seeing a guidance counselor after beating a classmate senseless and the later of which speaks to these haunting figures against the wishes of her mother and brother. You get a nice sense that these two – and momma – are all each other have, especially after the circumstances surrounding their dad’s disappearance.
At camp, a real Draco Malfoy of a bully (Thomas Kuc) picks on Hayley and Jacob whomps him real nice. Really serves him up a nice knuckle sandwich. The ol’ nose-splitting pie. Back at home, his mom pleads, “You can’t just going around hitting people,” though Jacob feels justified. After all, he was just defending his little sister!
Moves like this help to put the pieces in place for the final reveal but with director Alistair Legrand does lift the curtain, he attempts to shape shift the material to mixed results. Planting a bait-and-switch like this so late in the game, the mechanics of his world became even more lost on me and failed to properly piece together a reasonable timeline for the events of the film. Ambitious, no doubt, but ultimately fails to distinguish itself from the field.