Madison Heller (Ali Larter) is a single mom with the usual single mom problems. She has two kids, Haley (Chloe Perrin) and Jacob (Max Rose), and while both of them seem to be generally well adjusted, they still take up a lot of her time. It doesn’t get any easier when Jacob repeatedly gets into fights at school, or when she’s getting foreclosure notices from the bank slapped on her front door. But what’s really making Madison’s life messy are the strange flashing lights that periodically plague her home, and the entities that follow the lights. One of them has misshapen features, and is covered in blood, while the other one is a tall man with scars on his head that’s always trying to strangle whoever it can get to. Exactly what they are, and why they’re tormenting this family are the crux of writer/director Alistair LeGrand’s The Diabolical.
The film begins with a pair of paranormal investigators who are going through the house looking for clues to what’s happening. One of them ominously stops once he hears something through a closet door, something that freezes him in his tracks. LeGrand’s camera slowly gets closer to the investigator’s face as his fear becomes more and more evident. He ignores his partners pleading cry of “What’s Wrong?” as the camera gets closer and closer. The film suddenly cuts to the duo running out of the house as fast as they can, ignoring Madison’s pleas for help. So right away, I was intrigued by what the film was presenting to me. Although it gives off a general “Haunted House” vibe that I’ve witnessed 1000 times before, there was something about the atmosphere created by this opening scene that pulled me in.
And while many, if not all, of you might feel that another Poltergeist wannabe is something that doesn’t interest you, trust me when I say that The Diabolical is no Poltergeist wannabe (We’ve already gotten a Poltergeist wanna be this year anyway – the mundane remake from a few months ago). The first two acts hit on most of the expected tropes of the Haunted House film: Odd sounds in the middle of the night, objects that suddenly start floating in mid air for no discernible reason, etc, etc. But it also has those two “Ghosts” that are genuinely creepy, actually the blood soaked one looks like something straight out of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, with a face that only a cenobite could love. But the third act takes a maniacally unexpected twist (You might say it’s DIABOLICAL), and from then on in, the film goes off on a tangent I would never have expected. And I’m positive none of you will either, but as decidedly different the twist is, it does bring some baggage along for the ride.
First off, there are questions here that just don’t get answered. Such as, why is Madison still living in the house? It’s obvious that she’s been plagued by these entities for a lot longer than the film tells us. This question gets even deeper when a mysterious man comes to her front door with an offer to buy the house from her, no questions asked. And he’s persistent too, he even comes a knocking late in the evening. And much to his eventual dismay, he arrives just as the third act twist rears its unexpected head, leading to an unhappy end to his story arc. But why is he so insistent? And why won’t Madison take the deal and sell the house? Does she like being tortured by malicious entities that appear at night looking to slaughter her? The script also makes the mistake of having certain occurrences happen too conveniently, which mildly cheapens the experience. The reasons why Jacob gets into fights at school is something that’s glossed over, as well as any information about the kids father and why the couple divorced. I understand the idea of having the characters initially knowing more about the story than the audience does, but the script never really answers these questions, and I for one, wanted to know.
The Diabolical does generate a hell of a creepy vibe though, and LeGrand’s script (co-written by Luke Harvis) does a terrific job of teasing the audience. It doesn’t answer all of the questions I mentioned earlier, but it sure does a great job of keeping its audience glued to the screen looking for clues. It has echoes of The Entity, and of course Poltergeist (both 1982), but with that wacky third act twist, it ensures it’s originality in a big way. John Frost’s cinematography keeps the proceedings uncomfortably eerie throughout, and Ian Hultquist’s score is appropriately sparse – but it fills the spaces it needs to fill quite effectively. All the actors here essay their roles energetically, but it’s Ms. Larter that steals the film. Her portrayal of Madison is a multi faceted one in which Larter goes from calm and quiet to ferocious and forceful in the blink of an eye, yet it never feels forced or fake. It’s a genuinely nuanced portrayal of a single mother whose life is crashing all around her, yet she refuses to go down without the proverbial fight.
Of course, I can’t describe the third act twist that makes The Diabolical so unique, but I can say that it has a Sci-Fi bend to it. I also believe that some of you might be turned off to it once it rears its unexpected head. The film is a slow burn type of movie, and once it arrives at it’s third act, some of you (who have been patiently waiting for something big and gruesome to happen) will be disappointed. But I wasn’t, and I think The Diabolical is one of the better films I’ve seen this fall. As a matter of fact, I’m leaning towards calling it one of the best films of the year. Any film that can surprise a jaded viewer like me has to be something unique and special, and that’s what this film is: unique and special. It’s low budget means that some of the special effects might not look as good as they should, and those nagging questions might make you go a bit loopy at times, but The Diabolical is one that I’m gonna revisit a lot in the future. It’s a damned good film.
The Diabolical (4 / 5)