Before M Night Shyamalan rehabilitated his image with back-to-back successes in The Visit and Split, he hit rock-bottom with 2010’s The Last Airbender. Oh, Shyamalan would still drop one more bomb called After Earth. But the divisive filmmaker took a small step in the right direction by stepping back. Though the story wasn’t necessarily original, the Shyamalan-produced Devil turned out to be a surprise box office hit. Not surprisingly, critics were stingy with the praise for what’s essentially an extended Twilight Zone episode. Reviews were ultimately mixed. But who cares what the critics think – to the Devil with false modesty. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a well-executed guilty pleasure.
Philadelphia Detective Bowden – still grieving the death of his wife and son – responds to a suicide at a skyscraper. A man jumped from a 38th floor window, only leaving behind a cryptic note about the Devil. In the same building, five strangers find themselves trapped together in a broken elevator. There’s no no cell connection and the emergency phone doesn’t work. Their only contact to the outside is building security watching helplessly from a CCTV camera. As tensions escalate, the elevator’s lights flicker in and out, and one of the strangers is lying dead on the floor. Now Detective Bowden has assumed this case – five stranger, one dead, and only four of whom he can identify. Someone isn’t who they appear to be and Detective Bowden is running out of time.
Devil’s Thin Story Gets a Lift From a Game Cast
Not surprisingly, Shyamalan’s story is pretty paper thing stuff that lives and dies on a gimmick. Shyamalan has stitched together enduring myths of the Devil tempting sinners with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, mashing it all together in a single setting. From that starting point, screenwriter Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night) penned a threadbare script with plenty of expository dialogue, plot contrivances, and a melodramatic backstory. First, Devil gives us the requisite non-believer in the recovering alcoholic Detective Bowden, still jaded over the loss of his family. And just to ensure we know it’s the ‘Devil’ pulling the string, one of the security guards is a devout believer who narrates in voice-over and reminds Bowden several times about the presence of evil on Earth. To suggest Devil is a bit of a clunky story would be an understatement.
Of course, much of the story hinges on the strangers in the elevator. All five performers are up to the task, convincing that the claustrophobia and tension is real.
Fortunately, everyone involved in the movie invests in the material. Though he may be a ‘poor man’s Chris Evans’, Chris Messina anchors the story and offers audiences a sympathetic character through which to watch the story unfold. Both security guards – Jacob Vargas and Matt Craven, respectively – are excellent, with Craven particularly shining in the supporting role. Of course, much of the story hinges on the strangers in the elevator. All five performers are up to the task, convincing that the claustrophobia and tension is real. In particular, the underrated Bokeen Woodbine and up-and-coming Logan Marshall-Green (Upgrade) stand out. And Jenny O’Hara nails Devil’s final reveal.
Director John Erick Dowdle Gets The Most Out of Devil’s Story
If the story is thin, director John Erick Dowdle (The Poughkeepsie Tapes) still manages to squeeze the most tension possible out of it. At just 80 minutes, Dowdle keeps Devil moving along at a quick pace, which works to the movie’s advantage. Even with the intersecting storyline involving Detective Bowden, Devil’s story and limited setting offers only so much room for suspense and thrills. In addition to his trim approach to the material, Dowdle uses a few simple, but effective, tricks to make the elevator scenes creepy. The flickering lights are a bit of Pavlovian conditioning, priming the audience to expect something. Quick, flickering images in the background deliver decent scares in lieu of explicit gore. Despite some of the story’s obvious misdirection and red herrings, Dowdle compensates with skillful execution. The final reveal may not surprise most viewers, but it’s still damn good.
Devil a Familiar, But Lean, Effective Horror Thriller
Nothing about Devil is genre-bending or game-changing. In fact, Shyamalan’s story is predictable stuff and the screenplay drops some dialogue duds. Take out a few scenes and Devil could pass for a Twilight Zone episode. But it’s a good Twilight Zone episode. Dowdle maintains a tight pace and finds just enough chills and suspense in the limited setting. Throw in some good performances and Devil proves to be highly watchable, fun little thriller.