THE DIABOLICAL is easily one of the more ambitious films I have seen from a first time director. Alistair Legrand has directed many music videos, but he jumped into the world of feature films head first. THE DIABOLICAL’s ambition lies mainly in the massive plot twist that happens later in the film, and it is a doozy. If the rest of the review seems vague and skirting a fairly major chunk of the film, there is an intention behind this.
We start THE DIABOLICAL in the midst of a haunting. Madison (Ali Larter) and her two children are living in a big house that they cannot afford. After her husband died, Madison has been left with much more than she can handle. In addition to the house—and the private corporation aggressively trying to purchase it from her—she is also dealing with her son’s behavior issues, a new romantic relationship with her son’s physics tutor, and the frequent specters that appear nearly nightly in her home.
I loved the idea starting the film amidst the haunting. So many films start at the opening of phantasmal visit or when a family moves to a new home, so it was interesting to see the stress that Madison is under after living with these ghosts for some time. She has learned to identify their patterns, even categorized them, but their presence never dulls the terror for her and her children.
Though this is the first feature film from the director, nothing feels like a first film. The plot is cohesive and unfolds organically. The performances, including two from child actors, are convincing. The sound design and score are all-encompassing and really drag the audience into the film. Best of all, all of these elements work perfectly together. Haunted house films rely heavily on a cohesive atmosphere to heighten the creepiness of the location and make us care about the characters, and THE DIABOLICAL feels haunted at its core.
Given the twisty ending of the film, I can see that some people in the audience would be upset. It turns out that THE DIABOLICAL is not really the film they anticipate. As someone who spends too much time watching predictable films I actually loved the new elements THE DIABOLICAL adds to haunting films. I can honestly say that I did not see the twist coming, and I hope to see The Diabolical again soon to see if I should have been able to predict it. My one criticism of the film is that the very end of the film, just after the twist is revealed, is a little too neat. Each character is satisfied and interconnected in a way that makes it seem all too perfect. Horror films, especially supernatural horror, can be dark and messy. Legrand said at the post-screening Q&A that he felt he owed it to the characters to end the film with a happy bow, however I would argue that he owes more to both his audience and the characters to give them an authentic story. The film still works splendidly with the ending as-is, but it would have been better if there was a little less closure.
I wish new directors, and some veteran ones, would take such ambitious risks. Even for those who dislike THE DIABOLICAL’s big reveal, you can’t help but respect director Legrand for trying.