Director/writer Nicolas McCarthy’s 2012 debut The Pact draw favourable notices from horror aficionados for its old-fashioned and prolonged thrills and chills. His follow up, the brooding, apocalyptic-flavoured At the Devil’s Door (on limited release today over in the States) sees McCarthy working within a similar milieu but across a bigger canvas, cranking up the foreboding, dread-filled atmosphere to almost unbearable levels at times.

We had the opportunity to speak with the filmmaker recently to discuss the comparisons between his two features and his carefully-orchestrated bumps in the night.

HeyUGuys: Your first film The Pact seemed to register quite strongly over here in the UK. It felt very reminiscent of the kind of low-key horror film from a couple of decades back which would leave you pleasantly surprised after discovering and renting it from the local video shop.

Nicolas McCarthy: Thank you. I grew up watching lots of horror movies in the 80s during high school. I think the British release of The Pact was partially projected on film as there was a whole bunch of theatres actually showing 35mm. I asked [distributor] Entertainment One if they could get me a print of the movie which I now have sitting in my living room. There’s a fascination with the 80s right now and I think it’s a younger generation that didn’t have to live through the decade.

With both The Pact and At the Devil’s Door there’s the idea of evil lurking within the mundane, which seems to really interest you. Demons can literally jump out of a bedroom cupboard.

(Laughs) I’m not sure where that idea stems from. At The Devil’s Door is a movie that came together soon after we made The Pact. I started writing it within a few weeks of premiering The Pact it was also made with the key core creative people from that film – the DP, production designer, composer and sound designer. I was conscious of the fact that we were going to explore some of the same ideas here which first occurred in The Pact. I felt at the time we made that movie there was some unfinished business that needed to be taken care of, and that was the instinct that guided At the Devil’s Door. They are kind of sister movies.

Neither are strictly horrors movies, more horror/mysteries. It must be that combination that grabs you as a filmmaker?

Yeah. The Pact has three distinct acts that are very traditional in the way that type of movie unfolds. With the second film we were trying to tell the same kind of story in a very different way and keep the audience a little in the dark. That spirit of adventure and experiment was really what guided the all of us as we made the movie. I love mysteries.

At the Devil’s Door, in particular, has a real slowburn quality about it. Do you think that style of storytelling is a challenge when trying to engage with a modern attention-deficit audience?

That expression gets used a lot by people described the two movies. It drives me a little mad, but I get why they say it. I’m beholden to my own influences. The pacing of the story wasn’t meant to be intentionally slow. For me, there’s an almost eroticism in waiting for things to happen inside of a horror film. To attempt to actually pay off all the anticipation is really is trick, and that’s what we hoped to do. The audience wait long enough and can’t bear it any longer and then we kick them in the balls in a way which is satisfying (laughs).

One of the keys to achieving that audience release appears to be through your careful sound design. It’s used to sometimes stunning effect in this film. Can you talk about that?

The goal with this movie was really to combine the musical score with the sound design and have those two things overlapping. One of the things my composer Ronen Landa did on top of actually writing themes for the film was to create atmospheric chords which the sound designers would then later up with their own sounds. Even though I spent many hours mixing the film, there are a few moments where I can’t really tell when the sound design ends and the music begins. That was really the goal – to make it a wall-to-wall sonic piece. When I first watched the movie with an audience I never realised how that would feel, but it’s a fairly unforgiving and relentless experience. There isn’t much room in the film to breathe, but I guess at the end of the day that was what we were trying to do. Make a merciless horror movie.

The types of audience who are going into the film will be expecting to be challenged and won’t want to be let off the hook.

People want places to laugh in every horror movie. I realised that watching The Pact with an audience for the first time. There’s the nervous laughter which comes from scares and then there’s the laughter around the absurdity of horror. Incredibly absurd things happen to the characters in At the Devil’s Door and that’s one of the things I love about genre movies. You can literally drag your characters kicking and screaming into hell. One of my instincts while making films is to laugh if something is working and proves to be disturbing and creepy. It’s an odd reaction but I think it’s a natural one.

Without tipping too much into spoiler territory, there’s more of an emphasis on creature design in this film. The work is impressively scary, but was it always your intention to make the demonic appearances brief and glimpsed at, or was there a point when you really wanted to bring them to the fore?

In the original script for the movie the devil was only described but I knew I wanted to be able to see him. I had a very talented make-up and effects guy and after I gave the finished script to him we had a general conversation about what the devil would actually look like. We looked at a lot of medieval art and I bought a lot of book which illustrated how Satan looked in painting from the 14th and 15th century. Eventually we settled on an image of the devil which as very traditional to how he had been portrayed by artists. The idea was that to make these designs three dimensional. We don’t show a lot of him in the movie because I decided it would be more effective if you got flashes which almost felt subliminal. I also knew that movies now live on and digital format and there’s going to be lots of viewers who still-frame and to get a good look at how this guy. What was created is actually a pretty amazing piece of design work, and now the devil sits wrapped up in my garage.