Film Review: The Diabolical

Family drama meets haunted-house hijinks in this ambitious, downbeat psychological horror movie.
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Widow Madison Heller (Ali Larter of cult TV series “Heroes”) is the financially strapped and emotionally traumatized mother of two youngsters, sweet-natured little girlie-girl Haley (Chloe Perrin) and precocious pre-teen Jake (Max Rose), whose determination to protect his baby sister from grammar-school bullies has gotten him flagged as an angry and potentially dangerous kid. And as if that weren't bad enough, Madison's house is seriously haunted. When the glass chandelier starts rattling and the poltergeist thumps begin rattling her nerves, all Madison can say is, "Not again."

Which isn't to say that she doesn't try the obvious: She brings in priests, psychics and ghost-busting science-guys, all of whom run screaming. Something is definitely wrong with her house, but she's in no financial position to leave..... in fact, she's been reduced to Googling "bankruptcy" in an effort to find a way out of the financial morass in which she's mired. Pretty much the only bright spot in her life is Sam's teacher Nikolai (Arjun Gupta of TV's “Nurse Jackie”), an attentive boyfriend and dodgy physicist who may know more about what's going on than he's admitting.

The Diabolical is caught in a bind: It aims to remix and remake genre tropes, but its target audience is notoriously impatient with slow-burn narratives whose kick-ass punch lines are rooted in ordinary family dysfunction rather than wild sci-fi/horror mind-freaks. The movie's subtext is pure parent-child horror—Madison's late husband was a testosterone-poisoned rage addict and she's clearly afraid that her kids have been ruined by his lash-out-now/deal-later tendencies. So when it takes off in a whole other direction—one that involves time travel and much, much weirder elements—it's a little tough to keep your viewer footing.

But The Diabolical is worth the effort. It's a sharp little genre mix-it-up that delivers one hell of thoroughly set-up sucker punch without ever undermining its spiffy sci-fi/spook-show hijinks. It's not the kind of movie that gets fanboys all jazzed up, but it's a sleepy, creepy little reminder that ghost stories are first and foremost tales about regret and memories that just won't die.

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