A single mother, and her children, are awoken nightly by an intense presence. She asks her scientist boyfriend to destroy the violent spirit, that paranormal experts are too frightened to take on.
How much is a critic allowed to give away in their rundown of a film? One argument says that anything goes in the analysis; twists, turns and Keyzer Soze. It’s down to the reader to decide what they expose themselves to when perusing reviews. The other argument is that it’s the critic’s job to share their thoughts and ideas about a film but, much in the same way one would talk to friend, keep spoilers to a minimum. We’ve all had that moment when a compadre is enthusiastically selling you a film and then cries out, ‘She was a man all along!’ As enthused about the film you may still be, you’re never going to have the same cinematic experience as your friend with all spoilers exposed.
Which brings me to the directorial debut of Alistair Legrand, The Diabolical. Ostensibly a ghost story, single mum Madison (Ali Larter) is struggling to make ends meet in her palatial house, alongside her two children Jacob (Max Rose) and Haley (Chloe Perrin). Jacob is a child genius who teeters between bouts of scientific joy and violent anger. Ultimately a good kid, he struggles to keep his emotions under wraps. Haley is cute as a button, loves her family and talks to a ghost in her closet she believes is her dead father. Whilst Haley may be convinced the spirit is benign, Jacob and Madison’s encounters with it suggest it is out to harm them. I mean, it’s hard to jump straight to the idea of Ghost Dad, when you’re being chased out of your laundry room by a being that looks like Inside-Out Boy.
The Diabolical is a suitably atmospheric chiller, with Legrand having fun unpacking the usual haunted house tropes we’ve all grown up with. In fact, ‘grown up’ may be the operative phrase because if Steven Spielberg wasn’t a big influence on a young Legrand, I’ll go full Herzog and eat my shoe. Surgically remove the references to the Internet, cell phones, etc., and The Diabolical could easily fit into that golden age of 80s cinema. It’s Super 8 with ghosts, an unimaginative marketing person might cry.
Then the film turns left, when we expect it to right. When Madison ropes in her science teacher boyfriend, Nikolai (Arjun Gupta), to help get to the bottom of her paranormal activity, she discovers that he may actually have some connection with the cause of all their troubles. Which leads me back to the start of this review and how much my hands are tied when it comes to the film’s sudden change in genre. It’s problematic, but I don’t want to spoil why. Call me a coward if you must.
So what can I say?
Well, within in a matter of minutes, the film leaps from ghost story to sci-fi tale as Madison uncovers a conspiracy that will rock her family dynamic. If that sounds like I’m overegging the pudding, then I apologize for my hyperbole. However, as much as I enjoyed The Diabolical, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the twist on which the film hangs could potentially throw off a large part of its audience.
However, if you can allow yourself a moment to let the film wash over you, there’s an emotional punch line to The Diabolical that’s hard to shake off; as Madison fully embraces her role as mother and protector of her children, whilst realizing that once they grow up and leave the nest, her influence is becomes more and more limited. Others may see it as a cheap play for sentiment that throws the film off course.
So in summary, we have a great ghost story that you may or may not like, dependent on a genre twist that you may find to be genius or pants, but I’m refusing to tell you too much in case I influence your opinion. Make sense? No? Good. Go watch the film and stop relying on critics to tell you how to feel.