“From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan”. These words, which have adorned all the marketing materials for Devil, may well be the death knell for the film in terms of attracting an audience. Shyamalan, who was once regarded as a visionary filmmaker and whose name equalled must see movie, has come to be regarded as a self righteous hack, a director who makes bad movies yet acts as if he has made great ones – case in point, The Last Airbender, a
film that had all the necessary ingredients for a fun popcorn blockbuster yet still ended up being mind numbingly tedious to sit through – and whose name is now more likely to inspire boos of discontent than awes of amazement. Never before has such a great filmmaker fallen as far as Shyamalan has. Many, inspired by Shyamalan’s recent disaster, will no doubt have decided to steer clear of this film and you could be forgiven for doing so. There’s just one thing though – while the marketing says “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” (something that the marketing department at Universal Pictures may come to regret), this is NOT an M. Night Shyamalan film. Rather Devil is a film produced as part of The Night Chronicles, a production entity focused on creating a series of supernatural thrillers. The projects they develop are to be based on original ideas by M. Night Shyamalan (he does have some pretty good ideas after all, he just doesn’t seem to know how to execute them properly) but will neither be written or directed by him, rather up and coming filmmakers who will work with some collaboration from Shyamalan (whose involvement is mainly in a producing capacity). In the case of Devil, the director’s chair has gone to John Erick Dowdle, who previously wrote and directed the 2008 scare flick Quarantine and his brother Drew Dowdle, who co-wrote that film and is making his directorial debut with this one. The job of writing the screenplay, meanwhile, has gone to Brian Nelson, whose previous credits include 2006’s Hard Candy and 2007’s 30 Days of Night. As you can tell, M. Night Shyamalan’s creative influence over the film is fairly minimal, the story behind the film being his but, despite collaboration from him, the film really belonging to the Brothers Dowdle and Brian Nelson. How much difference does this really make to the quality of the film though? Based on Devil not all that much apparently.
The fates of five complete strangers – a salesman (Geoffrey Arend), an old woman (Jenny O’Hara), a young woman (Bojana Novakovic), a security guard (Bokeem Woodbine) and a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green) – are sealed from the minute they step into the same lift in an inner-city office block. None of them could ever have imagined that the seemingly small decisions that brought them to this moment were likely to be the last they ever made. All, that is, except one of them – the Devil, who is pulling sinister strings to make terrifying events unfold. As the lift grinds to a standstill, the group begins to suspect that something is definitely amiss. As lights flicker on and off and strange things reach out of the darkness, hysteria sets in and four of the five strangers must fight for their lives as those on the outside – troubled cop Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), religious security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) and his colleague Lustig (Matt Craven) – can do little but look on in horror as the terrifying events unfold. But which of these characters is the Devil? And what can the others possibly do to save themselves from this desperate situation?
If you can ignore the ridiculousness of the premise – the concept of a group of strangers being trapped together in an elevator and one of them not being who they seem is solid but the idea of one of them being the Devil is rather absurd (this isn’t one of Shyamalan’s better ideas) – you will find that Devil is a film that strives to be different from the many horror movies that you are used to seeing come out of Hollywood. This is a film that really tries hard to mess with your head rather than falling back on tired scare tactics by opting not to make you jump out of your seat with unimaginative jump scares and instead seeking to unnerve you, managing to establish a sense of unease before the characters have even set foot in the elevator by having establishing shots of New York City presented upside down (courtesy of some very good and quite chilling cinematography), creating a sense of disorientation that carries through much of the duration. And, when the characters do enter the elevator, the confined setting proves suitably claustrophobic, making for a perfect setting for the film’s events. Within the confined environment of the lift, simple things such as lights flickering and creaking noises – effective use of sounds being particularly important as a lot of what happens happens in the dark – become effective tools as menace with the knowledge that every moment that something like it happens it may well be the final moment of one of the character’s lives. Through these simple, non gimmicky techniques plenty of chilling scares are dished up and, consequently, the events that unfold are almost as uneasy to watch as they are for the characters to experience. The scare factor is aided considerably thanks to the performances from the cast members with almost everyone being excellent, the reactions of each of the characters seeming all the more convincing as a result and, thus, making us truly believe that they are scared for their lives, something which also heightens the tension for us as a viewers. This also makes guessing which one of them is the Devil all the more difficult as does the fact that we know nothing about any of the characters prior to them entering the elevator, meaning that there are no obvious indicators as to which one it is – although you have a 1 in 5 chance of guessing correctly. The lack of knowledge about the characters also proves to be a flaw, however, as, while it allows us to believe that it could be any one of them, it also makes it harder to really care about the characters as they get picked off one by one because we don’t really know who they are or what they are like. Additionally, the characters each seem to serve a particular stereotypical purpose – the salesman is funny and a bit perverted, the old woman is the natural sympathetic character, the young woman is the one who seems to be stirring things up, the guard is claustrophobic and the mechanic seems shifty – meaning that originality isn’t really something present among the characters. This does not reflect on the performances but rather the writing and this is isn’t the only problem in that department either. The plot is really lacking and not as engaging as it could be, many revelations come after you have probably figured them out for yourself already and the final twist and reveal of the Devil is just lame, having very little impact and almost diminishing the effectiveness of the film up to that point. So, while the film clearly does try to be a bit different and succeeds to an extent, a very poor twist in the tale and lack of a truly engrossing plot make for a film that is merely average rather than great as it could potentially have been (perhaps without the supernatural element?). Were Devil written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, it would be considered yet another dud on his behalf but instead it is an underwhelming follow up to Quarantine for the Brothers Dowdle. Nonetheless, however, if you do see it you may not want to step in an elevator again afterwards.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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