2010 developed into yet another defining year for filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, whose fan-base continued to decline and whose reputation was further sullied. On top of the fact that his monster-budgeted Hollywood adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender was greeted with immense derision from both critics and movie-goers, Shyamalan’s Devil was also subjected to ridicule throughout its marketing campaign (reports even spread of theatre-goers laughing and booing at the trailer). Even so, Shyamalan did not write or direct the film – he instead conceived the story and served as producer. Nevertheless, Devil is the first of a proposed series of genre films called The Night Chronicles, all of which are to be based on Shyamalan’s ideas. If this first entry is intended to be the quality yardstick, it’s difficult to remain optimistic about the future of The Night Chronicles. With that said, though, Devil – which is inspired by a parable about Satan walking among sinners on Earth – is at least slick and engaging on a basic level despite the empty-headed script.
The proceedings take place in a Philadelphia high-rise, where five apparent strangers – an elderly pick-pocket (O’Hara), a temp security guard (Woodbine), a mechanic (Marshall-Green), a sharply-dressed young woman (Novakovic), and a shady mattress salesman (Arend) – become stranded in an inoperative elevator. The group gradually grow uneasy of each other, however, especially when they start getting mysteriously killed one-by-one. On the outside, a couple of security guards monitor the happenings within the elevator and attempt to help them get out. These security guards are eventually joined by a recovering alcoholic detective (Messina). As the tensions within the elevator continue to grow, logical explanations begin to dwindle and the characters gradually come to the realisation that the Devil may be along for the ride, and that the sinners aboard the elevator are meant to pay for past transgressions.
If Alfred Hitchcock was handling the premise behind Devil, it could have been a tightly-wound, enthralling, pulse-pounding suspense movie (consider Hitchcock’s Lifeboat; an excellent film with a somewhat comparable plot). Unfortunately, Hitchcock has passed on, and the crew who brought Devil to fruition are not nearly as adept. Shyamalan handed the writing and directing duties to Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) and John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) respectively, but Shyamalan’s unwelcome fingerprints are nonetheless all over the crime scene. Alas, Devil denotes yet another shameful, mawkish retread of Shyamalan’s favourite messages and themes regarding fate (Signs), destiny (Unbreakable) and how all of us are connected (Lady in the Water). Added to this are several Shyamalan trademarks: quirky characters with dark secrets, a twist ending with an overinflated reveal, quasi-religious themes slathered in hackneyed genre conventions and clumsy dialogue, etc. What’s even worse is the abysmal ending, which transforms what could’ve been an effective chiller into something preachy, eye-rolling and painfully clichéd.
Added to this, Devil is plagued by a laundry list of awkward devices. For instance, rather than the characters figuring out the Devil is among them through clues, storytelling and clever dialogue, the tired racial stereotype emerges in the form of a solemn, devoutly religious Latino security guard who straight-up declares they are dealing with Satan. The guy clearly knows everything about the Devil and his modus operandi, and therefore he jabbers about it incessantly. He is even given a largely unnecessary voiceover narration. At times it sets the stage and introduces some of the film’s underlying concepts, but too often the commentary is akin to watching a movie with an obnoxious guy who likes to spoil the story and predict things out loud. Furthermore, a number of questions entered this reviewer’s head throughout the film. For example, why would the Prince of Darkness imprint his visage on a surveillance camera for the security team to see? Why is the Devil so bored that he wants to kill off two-bit sinners with over-the-top theatrics? Not to mention, it seems silly that Satan is killing unrepented sinners before they have had the chance to repent.
Credit where credit is due, though – Devil sort of works from a technical perspective. Dowdle is a decent director with a skill for building tension and establishing an apprehensive atmosphere. Complementing his efforts are the contributions of composer Fernando Velázquez and director of photography Tak Fujimoto. Running at a scant 80 minutes, Devil also benefits from its brevity and a perfectly judged pace. Furthermore, there is something inherent intriguing and engaging about watching a group of people caught in such a situation, and it is fun seeing where the narrative takes them. On top of this, there are a few phantom shots of the skyline throughout which suggest the malevolence at work is more considerable than elevator murders. The character deaths are astonishingly grim as well, and almost always violent – this is a rare case of a PG-13 slasher for which the docile rating is not a hindrance. Admittedly, too, Devil is a somewhat exciting game of guessing which person is Satan. The acting, for the most part, is quite good and surprisingly believable as well.
Unfortunately, while Devil is not completely sans merit, the fact that we know about Satan’s involvement from the outset strips the movie of intrigue and mystery. We know from the beginning that each character is going to be a flawed lost soul, and that one of them is going to be the Prince of Darkness in human disguise. Also detrimental is that Devil is not exactly scary. It’s intense, sure, but the picture is more of an Agatha Christie-style mystery than a horror movie.