“Could it be…oh, I don’t know…SATAN!?”

Five characters in search of a bigger set.

DEVIL (2010)
I don’t have the strong feelings a lot of people seem to have about M. Night Shyamalan, in large part due to that I’ve only seen about half of his oeuvre and have half-liked about half of that. It doesn’t really beg repeat viewings but you have to admit that The Sixth Sense was a functional and fun mind-fuck when it swept us all away on a wisp of Bruce Willis’ hair, Haley Joel Osmet’s trembling lower lip, and some economical ghost effects. After that I saw the laughable crop-circle (!) alien/farm fable, Signs, the interestingly premised but poorly executed Unbreakable (perhaps the dreariest superhero movie ever made), and finally the last fifteen minutes of The Village (which did not inspire me to go back and catch the rest of it). So yeah, maybe MNS is a one-hit wonder and maybe that’s the reason Devil was outright rejected by the public with a wide release that came and went with almost no notice. Too bad for John Erick Dowdle, director of Quarantine (which I liked) and The Poughkeepsie Tapes (which I REALLY liked), that Devil had the misfortune of being saddled with MNS’s name: he produced it and gets a story (but not script) credit, because anyone who’s seen one of MNS’s “visions” (you just get the feeling that’s how he thinks of his movies, and I don’t begrudge him that; everything I’ve seen from him does manage to sustain some sort of signature dopey mysticism) will realize five minutes in that this isn’t really an MNS joint and therefore doesn’t suffer from the same stilted prosy dialogue or those gaping expressions of utter disbelief. (Oh, wait–scratch that.)

Third floor, ladies cosmetics. Second floor, sporting goods. First floor...HELL.

No, Devil suffers from problems all its own. The story—Five strangers trapped on a broke-down high-rise elevator (by fate? by an evil mastermind? by the title character?) are fearfully pitted against one another when it becomes clear they’re sharing a little steel box with a homicidal maniac who kills when the lights go out — feels more like straight-up horror than what one expects from MNS. But the horror elements ultimately fail to materialize the way I’d hoped they would. Part of the problem is that the plot is laid out like a police mystery and spends way too much of its scant running time outside of the stuck elevator, with blue-collar building security and a police detective (Chris Messina) chasing down red herrings that distract from drama that could be occurring in the movie’s primary set piece.  It doesn’t take long, however, for us to realize we’re being led down a familiar path to the certain, impending MNS Twist Ending (TM) …and only then do his grubby little fingerprints become apparent. But hey — fair enough. It’s a comfortingly familiar high-concept premise. (The sort of premise from which Hitchcock could have spun gold.) The problem is that everything, and I mean everything, is undercooked and feels rushed. When the finale’ twist finally rears its demonic head, it’s hardly satisfying, is pretty ineffective and, worse still, damn silly. What’s most disappointing though is that for a movie that mostly takes place in a stopped elevator, Dowdle doesn’t even come close to tapping into the same sense of chest-grabbing claustrophobia he pulled off so effectively in Quarantine. How can that be?

One suspects this visual is supposed scare you when it flashes across the screen.

There are no stand-out performances (though familiar character actor Jenny O’Hara does have her moments) or directorial flourishes that distinguish Devil from a lower-budget, straight-to-cable thriller, but it does get points for being competent and short (a mere 80 minutes) – which makes it a painless experience, but also contributes to the aforementioned rushed feeling. Tension doesn’t build so much as hysteria erupts. Ultimately, too many things about the script never gel. None of the characters, save some outside-the-elevator observers, are very likable and nothing here is even remotely scary…or even close to being as effective as this notable Six Feet Under “opening death” scene. Devil is more of a Twilight Zone episode than a movie, and even then, not classic Twilight Zone, but the crappy 80s-revival version.

As an evening’s diversion, Devil is serviceable. You won’t hate yourself in the morning for having watched it, but by next week you’ll have forgotten about it altogether.

** – two stars out of four

~ by willnepper on February 28, 2011.

One Response to ““Could it be…oh, I don’t know…SATAN!?””

  1. You just gave it the shaft. Another great review Will.

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