Director : John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay : Brian Nelson (story by M. Night Shyamalan)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Chris Messina (Detective Bowden), Logan Marshall-Green (Mechanic), Jenny O’Hara (Old Woman), Bojana Novakovic (Young Woman), Bokeem Woodbine (Guard), Geoffrey Arend (Salesman), Jacob Vargas (Ramirez), Matt Craven (Lustig), Joshua Peace (Detective Markowitz), Caroline Dhavernas (Elsa Nahai), Joe Cobden (Dwight), Zoie Palmer (Cheryl), Vincent Laresca (Henry), Rudy Webb (Old Janitor), Craig Eldridge (Donnelly)
No doubt Devil will receive more than its share of bad press and reviews for one of two reasons (or, more likely, both). First, it was co-produced and developed from a story by M. Night Shyamalan, the first in an apparent series known as The Night Chronicles, which is more than enough fuel for Shymalan bashers, most of whom are still high from the train wreck that was The Last Airbender. Second, it is an unabashed horror film with genuine Judeo-Christian spiritual convictions, which seems to raise the ire of a critical establishment that insists on a mandated separation of church and cinema (with all due forgiveness given to The Exorcist because at least it was made during the cynical ’70s, even if it is anything but). While not perfect by any means, Devil is a much better film than it will be given credit for, which is a shame, particularly in an era in which horror films increasingly focus on trendy nihilistic pointlessness.
The screenplay, a sharp, unadorned affair penned by Brian Nelson (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night), is predicated on a Twilight Zone-ish premise: Five apparent strangers--a young mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), an older woman (Jenny O’Hara), a sharply dressed younger woman (Bojana Novakovic), a temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), and a sleazy businessman (Geoffrey Arend)--get on an express elevator one morning in a Philadelphia high-rise and find themselves trapped when the elevator inexplicably stops somewhere halfway up the building. Modern technology allows for a pair of security guards (Matt Craven and Jacob Vargas) to keep an eye on what is happening inside the elevator and to speak to its occupants via a com system (although it is malfunctioning and only works one way). This limited form of electronic connectivity provides more tension than relief, though, as it functions in Rear Window fashion as a surrogate movie screen that leaves the guards functionally impotent to do anything about the increasingly horrific activities they see going on inside the stalled elevator. The best they can do is call in a police investigator, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) who was already on the scene investigating a nearby suicide. While Bowden, who is battling his own personal demons, quickly realizes that something terrible is happening, he is understandably reluctant to go with one of the security guard’s belief--fueled by a religious scare story his grandmother used to tell him--that one of the passengers is the devil himself and is tormenting the others before taking them to hell.
Director John Erick Dowdle, who has already successfully worked the horrors of confined spaces in Quarantine (2008), and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who previously worked with Shymalan on The Sixth Sense (1999), Signs (2002), and The Happening (2008), keep the film visually interesting despite a limited number of locations (primarily the increasingly claustrophobic elevator, the security office, and the elevator shaft itself, which becomes its own deathtrap). Dowdle works and reworks various plays on vertiginous imagery, whether it be the opening shots of Philadelphia’s skyline that are made uncanny simply by turning them upside down, the extreme low angles that turn the high-rise into an almost unrecognizably warped shape set against an increasingly violent sky, or sweeping crane shots atop the building that follow a maintenance man (Joe Cobden) trying to keep his hat from blowing off the edge. He also employs a series of clever shock cuts to unite the various subplots in and around the elevator, the best being a shot of a character potentially stepping into an electrified puddle of water that immediately cuts away to the sparks flying from a concrete saw, thus potentially implying what we most fear, but perhaps not. The film’s impressive visual nature, which is intensified nicely by Fernando Velazquez’s pounding score, which makes the horn section sound like it is being slowly strangled to death, goes a long way toward redeeming some of its more awkward devices, especially a largely unnecessary voice-over narration by Vargas’ security guard that constantly spells out the supernatural subtext. Some of it is necessary to set the stage and introduce some of the film’s underlying concepts, but it is used too often and at times detracts from the film’s escalating tension.
The visual extremes of high and low echo the story’s belief in the fundamental powers of both good and evil, and its vacillation between the relative safety of light and the absolute terror of the dark reminds us of their constant struggle. While the majority of the film works to fuel an increasing sense of absolute despair, with the trapped characters being horrifically picked off by an unseen force every time the lights flicker out, the film as a whole is ultimately looking for the silver lining of redemption. Most horror films of late have no such sensibility and don’t care to, because abject nihilism is both trendier and easier to do; it doesn’t require any real moral investment or thought. Devil brings us face to face with the worst imaginable supernatural horror made real in everyday terms, but then confronts it with the most fundamental elements of human decency--namely empathy and forgiveness--and has the gall to suggest that good might just be enough to overcome the dark.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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