When I first saw the trailer for Devil I, like everyone in the theater, was somewhat intrigued – compelling enough premise, claustrophobic setting, Twilight Zone-esque deportment. Then the name M. Night Shyamalan came across the screen and the entire theater erupted into laughter. An understandable first reaction, but what few people seemed to notice was that it wasn’t in the same capacity as his previous films. Devil is the first of the “Night Chronicles,” a series of films in which Shyamalan comes up with the story and serves as producer but passes on the screenwriting and directing reins to others. So although Devil is “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan,” it’s written by Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) and directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine). Two names that shouldn’t elicit the same groans of disappointment.
The premise is simple enough. Five strangers, each with a slightly shady past get stuck in an elevator. One-by-one they get killed off and suspicion starts to drive the others crazy. One of them is obviously the culprit, but which one? Is it the security guard with the violent past, the smarmy mattress salesman or the hot guy from the O.C.? Chances are pretty good that you won’t guess. The cast is made up of relatively unknown actors, none of whom really stands out. It’s a good thing because no one is more important than another and it’s unlikely you’ll guess which one is going to die next or who is ultimately responsible (a rarity in horror movies these days).
Where Devil suffers is that despite the terrifying situation it’s just not that scary. It’s tense and you can feel the strain but there are no real jump-out-of-your-skin moments. There are some gruesome deaths but you don’t actually see them happen because they can only be executed when the lights are off (otherwise you would know who the killer is). That’s not to say it isn’t done well, it’s just not scary.
The other major problem is that for a “locked-room mystery” we spend way too much time out of the locked room. The story cuts back and forth between the happenings in the elevator and the efforts going on outside to save them. The tension that builds inside is lost over and over again as we go back to the story of the clichéd detective trying to solve the mystery.
But all this is moot, because Devil’s biggest problem is its very foundation. At the very beginning an unnecessary voice over informs us that the Devil occasionally likes to dress up as a human and pay a visit to earth; gather together a few sinners in a confined space; and torture, torment and ultimately kill all of them. The idea of murder in a confined space and people turning on each other is a good one (hell, Agatha Christie made an entire career out of it), but the supernatural element, religious undercurrent and message about sin and redemption makes it all seem a bit silly. The fact that they hit us over the head with it over and over again doesn’t help. People get stuck in an elevator for reasons no one can figure out and almost instantly a churchgoing security guard determines it’s the devil – literally. It’s a pretty ridiculous postulation and his “somebody killed himself this morning then the toast fell jelly-side-down therefore it’s the devil” theory is downright laughable. As the story moves forward it goes from creepy to kinda stupid and it never really finds its way back. The last act and its attempt at a twist is unsatisfying and ultimately a disappointment.
I can’t say that Devil is the worst thing I’ve seen all year, nor is it the best. It has some redeeming qualities and was entertaining enough, but all in all it’s a big fat “meh.”
The Upside: Does a good job of building tension in the elevator and keeping the culprit’s identity under wraps.
The Downside: The attempt at a big payoff at the end is disappointing and clichéd. It all gets wrapped up in too neat of a bow.
On the Side: Geoffrey Arend, who plays the mattress salesman, is married to Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, which has nothing to do with anything, but people seem to like her.