Alistair Legrand had a bit of an uphill battle convincing his producers he was the man for the job, but this first feature is a strong start for Legrand.
Madison and her family live in a haunted house. Poltergeist activity and ghost sightings are a matter of course, but that doesn't make them any less terrifying. Madison knows she has to get her family out of there, but she's broke and when her kids fall ill, leaving isn't an option. Under pressure to sell her home, and worried about the increasing frequency of the ghostly visitations, Madison takes drastic measures to keep her family safe.
The Diabolical hits the ground running, eschewing the traditional haunted house set-up. The movie begins in middle, which is a great move to be sure, but Legrand's inexperience with feature-length narrative shows in the lack of escalation. The Diabolical falls short of being all incident, as the movie does include a good bit of story development, but the audience isn't given the chance to settle into the film and grow their fear.
On the plus side, The Diabolical offers a new perspective on hauntings, one which favors science over the supernatural. The reveal, when it comes, is satisfying and sheds light on some on the design and effects choices made during production. I wouldn't go so far as to say the execution was flawless, but the ghosts have a certain look and feel that make sense in retrospect.
Where the film really shines is in the ghosts themselves. Madison describes three distinct apparitions, and they're alarming and gross in a most gratifying way. As the narrative progresses, the ghosts change and careful attention is paid to how they appear onscreen. It's this kind of attention to detail that helps the movie fill the space between it an the audience—clues and cues that suggest there's more going on behind the scenes.
The Diabolical stars Ali Larter as the long-suffering Madison, but Max Rose, who plays Madion's son Jacob, carries a lot of the narrative weight. At twelve, Max in on the cusp of adulthood. In this liminal state—caught between boyhood and manhood—Max embodies a lot of the changes taking place around him. He can't control his anger any more than he can control the ghosts, and in the same way he as to learn to take responsibility for his actions, he finds a sense of purpose in helping Nikolai study the ghostly phenomena.
Far from perfect, The Diabolical still offers something new for longtime fans of haunted house movies. Good creature effects and a solid story don't necessarily make up for what feels like a missing first act, but Legrand and his co-writer Luke Harvis offer a new perspective on an old subgenre of horror film.
The Diabolical was paired with short film Sleep Monster, easily one of the better Canadian shorts I've seen so far at Toronto After Dark 2015. Similar to the reality-bending narrative present in The Diabolical, Sleep Monster features a young woman who's controlled by a dream. Blending the events of dreamtime and wakefulness, Sleep Monster brings dark and dangerous feelings to light.
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