This supernatural thriller takes a simple but intriguing premise, supplied by producer M. Night Shyamalan, which sounds like an effective half-hour episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE*, and deftly expands it to feature-length: five people trapped in an elevator are picked off one by one; is one of them a serial killer or the Devil himself? Running a tight 80 minutes, the result is essentially an effective B-movie that delivers equal amounts of suspense and mystery, while justifying its existence on the big screen with some atmospherically ominous photography of cloud-filled cityscapes, implying that this little story has much vaster implications for the world at large. Billed as the first in what is being called “The Night Chronicles” (a series of collaborations between Shyamalan and entertainment company Media Rights Capital), DEVIL is actually superior to any of Shyamalan’s recent directorial outings even as it recycles themes and ideas from his earlier works. Though not afraid of using shocks and flashes of violence, the emphasis is on gradually building tension, which should satisfy horror fans seeking scares; only the hard-core gore-hounds will be disappointed.
DEVIL gets off to a great start, with opening credits playing over a typical aerial scene of skyscrapers – except, in this case, the footage is upside-down, creating a wonderfully vertiginous effect, suggesting the natural order of things has been reversed. The film informs us of as much, through the use of narration, recounting a folk story about the Devil gathering together damned souls on Earth, to punish them before dragging them to Hell. A prelude to this event, we are told, is a suicide – an event which brings onto the scene Police Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who happens to be a recovering alcoholic since the death of his family in a car accident.
Meanwhile, five apparently unrelated characters wind up on an elevator that inexplicably becomes stopped between floors. Fear and frustration lead tempers to flare, and it’s not long before someone is assaulted. Watching the events through security monitors, unable to hear what the trapped people are saying, Bowden tries to get a handle on who these five people are, while security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) – who turns out to be the voice narrating the film – regales him with his mother’s tale of the Devil walking among humans.
With its “5 Little Indians” scenario, DEVIL is more or less guaranteed to generate some suspense: the elevator becomes a pressure cooker, waiting to explode, and the drama is nicely sustained by a talented cast of unknown actors who bring no pre-conceived audience expectations to their roles, thus leaving their characters’ mystery intact. It’s nice to see an ensemble piece not packed with stars, and this (rather than cheazoid exploitation of something like PIRANHA 3D) is a true hallmark of the B-movie: limited resources put to good use.
But that is not enough to sustain a film. Like SAW, DEVIL breaks away from the isolated location, showing outside events; fortunately, it manages to do so without dissipating the tension of the claustrophobic setting. In fact, the exterior scenes of a gathering storm, backed by composer Fernando Velazques’s wonderfully evocative score, augment the tension, making the small-scale events at the story’s core seem larger than life, an archetypal confrontation with Evil. On a more simple narrative level, it is interesting to watch a police thriller in which the cop has only his words to use, the separation between him and the elevator preventing the usual gun play and car chases.
Not that DEVIL skimps on visceral impact. Director John Erick Dowdle not only utilizes effectively the limited space of the elevator; he also superbly exploits the surroundings – dark elevator shafts, spinning wheels and metal cables – to suggest that carnage could strike at any moment. For a film that mostly eschews graphic horror, the threat seems every present, never allowing viewers to slide into a comfort zone, the occasional gruesome flash of broken glass and blood reminding them that this is no genteel thriller.
There are parallels with Shyamalan’s misbegotten LADY IN THE WATER, which also used an old story told to children as a means of commenting on the events taking place in the film. DEVIL’s screenwriter Brian Nelson puts the idea to much better use here by not having all the characters accept Ramirez story immediately; he may want the audience to react like children hearing a scary story from their parents, but he knows he has to earn this reaction, not just take it for granted (as Shyamalan did in LADY IN THE WATER). If anything, DEVIL goes a bit too far in this direction: there are awkward moments apparently intended to make us understand why Bowden would doubt Ramirez (who at one point attempts to prove the proximity of the Devil by dropping a piece of bread and noting that it lands “jelly-side down”).
Essentially, DEVIL is playing the game we expect in this kind of film, presenting us with a rational character who gradually comes to believe in supernatural events; fortunately, the screenplay layers this narrative development with a bit more depth, as the unfolding events force Bowden to confront his own emotional trauma. The character arc is more or less a replay of Reverend Hess (Mel Gibson) in SIGNS, who also lost a wife in a car accident; fortunately, the result plays out in different terms, although still with the sense of redemption intact. The message, in both cases, is that everything happens for a reason; even when things seem terrible, chaotic, and pointless, there is a silver lining waiting to emerge from behind the dark clouds.
Not everything works as well as it should. The gimmick used to disguise the identify of the killer is easy to guess. One character, identified as an Iraq vet, seems rather too squeamish when confronted with a bloody corpse. The ending, although it wraps up the story nicely, lacks the punch one expects after the long build-up.
Like PREDATORS earlier this year, DEVIL introduces us to a small group of characters trapped in a life-or-death situation; in both cases, the victims are reaping what they sowed, which makes them not necessarily the most sympathetic group of people, but the point is that even sinners can be redeemed. PREDATORS took a secular approach to this idea, but DEVIL lets it play out in good, old fashioned terms of God and the Devil, Salvation and Damnation – somehow without sounding preachy. In our modern era, dogma and even the finer point of theology are on the out; but the underlying need to believe in something greater and good remains.
The cache of Shyamalan’s name has dropped significantly over the past few years, thanks to disappointments like THE VILLAGE. Curiously, DEVIL recycles many of his tropes (not only does it begin with a suicide a la THE HAPPENING; it also concludes with an obligatory surprise twist revelation), but in the hands of Brian Nelson and John Erick Dowdle, these motifs are synthesized into something new. DEVIL ultimately doesn’t have the profound resonance of THE SIXTH SENSE – it’s a good little movie, rather than a full-blown masterpiece – but if this is any sign of what The Night Chronicles will be, we eagerly await the next. In an era when so many would-be blockbuster crash and burn, we could use a series of B-movies that actually entertain.
DEVIL (September 17, 2010). Produced by M. Night Shyamalan. Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Screenplay by Brian Nelson, based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Music by Fernando Velaszuez. Cast: Chris Messina, Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green, Caroline Dhavemas, Jacob Vargas, Bokeem Woodbine, Matt Craven, Jenny O’Hara, and Kim Roberts.
- Think of the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” Going further back there’s the feature film CUBE and, of course, the great grand-daddy of them all: Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, NO EXIT.