The Diabolical (2015)

The Diabolical first published by Little White Lies

“Not again.”

This opening line – coming after the camera has reeled unnaturally (POV-style) through a darkened house, after electrical devices have started and stopped of their own accord, after there has been an eerie flash of light and a pen has moved across a table by itself – registers not only the fact that its speaker, single mother Madison Heller (Ali Larter), has already witnessed this sort of Poltergeist activity before, but also that The Diabolical is on overfamiliar ground.

Indeed, the sudden materialisation and dematerialisation of a demonic figure before Madison’s (and our own) eyes seems merely to confirm that Alistair LeGrand’s feature debut is going through the genre motions, and that Madison’s weary (if panicky) two words point to a long history of horror movie cliché. LeGrand, however, is laying out a classical problem only to find a new, brain-burning solution that involves a blurring of subgenres, a cross-fertilising of some very different ideas, and a complete overhaul of the ghost’s traditional relationship to the past (with only a recent Venezuelan horror title as partial precedent).

If the most human-looking apparition (Kurt Carley) who haunts this house comes dressed in a convict’s uniform, Madison and her children – smart but disturbed Jacob (Max Rose) and the younger Haley (Chloe Perrin) – are themselves prisoners in various ways of their own home. First there is the genetic legacy of anger and violence that Madison’s late husband Mark has bequeathed to their son. Then there is the economic trap that prevents the heavily mortgaged Hellers from simply moving out, soon to be followed by a more mysterious barrier that will physically stop the children leaving the house’s premises. And if Madison’s new boyfriend Nik (Arjun Gupta) is a physicist with his own shady past, science points to a different kind of trap from which the family will in the end find only a paradoxical, ambiguous form of escape.

All of which makes for a rich and intriguing variation on a timeworn theme, as the tropes of the haunted house flick are ingeniously reverse-engineered and rebuilt into something else. Here, even as a troubled family in need of mending remains at the heart of everything, the genre’s infernally looped repetitions come in a radically altered form.

Anton Bitel