Devil (2010) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, some languages, and sexual references
Running time: 80 min.
Cast: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Jenny O'Hara, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay: Brian Nelson
Review published February 6, 2011
Producer M. Night Shyamalan (The Happening, Lady in the Water) writes this basic Agatha Christie-ish plot and story upon which Devil is based. Devil is the first is a proposed series of PG-13 genre films called "The Night Chronicles", based on his ideas done by different screenwriters and directors. If this entry is supposed to be the strongest of the bunch, it should give us pause to be optimistic at the prospect of future contributions from Shyamalan.
The high-concept premise: five strangers from different backgrounds are trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise office building are terrorized when they are killed one by one mysteriously. As the tension turns deadly, logical explanations begin to dwindle as it appears there is a malevolent force along for the ride, and these sinners are meant to pay for past transgressions. Not much of a mystery, as the title gives up the supernatural goods, which takes whatever mystery the screenplay tries to employ and jettisons it in favor of tepid horror movie formula.
M. Night's morality tale is gimmicky, as we've come to expect from Shyamalan, who still continues to present himself as this generation's Hitchcock (it should be noted that the premise of this film is very similar to Hitch's Lifeboat, where several people stuck on a lifeboat have to deal with the presence of a potential Nazi in their midst). Devil isn't quite the claustrophobic, one-set film you'd expect, as the inside-the-elevator action is broken up by side stories involving a police detective investigating the apparent suicide of a jumper in the building, as well as the building's security personnel who are actively trying to get the elevator moving again, while watching the horrific events take place through their security camera in one of the upper corners of the elevator's interior. There isn't enough story here to sustain a full-length feature, and Shyamalan probably would have been better served making this the first short in an anthology film (indeed, it is rather reminiscent of a "Twilight Zone" episode, "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"), rather than stretch it out with weaker side stories and needless characters.
The characterizations are skimpy, which you might expect in an ensemble film that runs just a smidge over 80 minutes, and some of them are just downright annoying. For instance, one of the security guards, who also happens to be the film's narrator of sorts, is devoutly religious and seems to know everything about the Devil and his modus operandi, which he jabbers about incessantly. His commentary is akin to watching a film sitting behind a guy who likes to spoil the story throughout. Director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, The Poughkeepsie Tapes) does the best he can with the tricky shoot, but screenwriter Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) can't infuse enough interesting characters for us to give a damn about, and has trouble keeping us on board to the obvious twists that Shyamalan has infused in.
This is a film with a story only set up for the purpose of the twist. Why else would the Devil care about doing his dirty deeds in piecemeal fashion? Why does he have to turn out the lights to commit heinous deeds, so that the spectators won't know what's going on? Why would he imprint his visage on the security camera subliminally for the two-person security team to see? Is the Devil actually so bored that he wants to kill off two-bit sinners with theatrics that, for the history of mankind, has never been so obviously public? It just makes no sense, story-wise, so when it turns out that these five strangers were predetermined to be on the same elevator at the same time, and the cop on the beat happens to have an interest too, we don't even bat an eye. Like many bad horror flicks, the plot makes up its own rules as it goes along.
Although the premise is catchy, the predictable execution leave much to be desired. B-movie horror lovers will likely be tolerant. For most other viewers, it's akin the the actual experience of being stuck in an elevator -- it wastes your time, taxes your patience, and from nearly the first moment you realize your predicament, you just want out.
©2011 Vince Leo