As movie premises go, Devil’s sounds like the Hollywood equivalent of chat show host Alan Partridge’s desperate cry of “Monkey tennis!” when faced with the task of coming up with a good idea for a television series.
You can imagine M Night Shyamalan (upon whose concept Devil‘s script is based) in the meeting, the gears of his brain grinding as he cobbled the story together on the spot. “It’s about five people… trapped in a lift, with, erm, erm… LUCIFER!”
But as daft as the premise sounds, I was thoroughly prepared to give Devil a fair chance. It wanders so close to the brink of self-parody, I thought, that there’s the outside chance that director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) could pull a respectable movie out of it.
After all, the master of duvet-shredding fear, M.R. James, span incredibly scary stories out of the most ridiculous scenarios imaginable. One of his most nerve-jangling confections is based on the unlikely concept of a haunted whistle. That’s up there with ‘Satan’s dressage’ and ‘evil Austin Allegro’ in the list of non-threatening ghost story ideas, but thanks to the author’s razor-sharp prose, it proves to be one of the most pyjama-soiling tales of the supernatural ever written.
So, despite the downward trajectory of Shyamalan’s movie career of late, which culminated with this summer’s turkey-in-stereoscope The Last Airbender, I wandered into a public screening of Devil free from prejudice.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have a good idea of the plot: five people, trapped in the confines of a malfunctioning lift, gradually begin to suspect that one of their number is not who they appear.
There’s nervy, claustrophobic security guard, Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), a shifty mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a sweet old lady (Jenny O’Hara), an enigmatic younger lady (Bojana Novakovic) and a sleazy salesman, who looks like the alien from Mac And Me in a black wig (Geoffrey Arend).
And as the lift muzak drones on and unexplainable events begin to mount up, the level of paranoia among the prisoners reaches boiling point.
Outside, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), an ex-alcoholic still recovering from the hit-and-run death of his wife and child five years earlier, is investigating an apparently unrelated suicide. Some desperate soul, still clutching his rosary beads, has taken a swan dive from a top storey window of the selfsame building with the malfunctioning lift, and now lies embedded in the roof of a delivery vehicle.
But as the tense stand-off in the stricken elevator slides into murderous anarchy, Bowden is drafted in to find out the identities of the people inside, and work out exactly what evil forces are at work among them.
From the wide, off-kilter opening shot of Philadelphia, Dowdle shoots Devil with surprising surety and panache. Like a cut-price David Fincher, he deftly constructs an air of foreboding in potentially tricky circumstances, establishing the stifling environment of the lift with point-of-view shots and uncomfortably tight camera angles.
Brian Nelson’s screenplay is economically written, and wisely chooses not to take its daft premise too seriously, weaving in a few moments of levity between the flashes of evil. In one scene, a superstitious security guard uses a slice of toast and jam to prove the existence of Satan.
The cast of largely unknown actors acquit themselves well, and while Messina makes for an unusually clean cut recovering booze hound, he’s sympathetic and believable as the cop unwittingly caught in a dance with the Devil himself.
There are, however, a few problems.
Struggling with the inherently restrictive nature of Devil’s premise, which by itself would trap the audience in one location with five talking heads for 80 minutes, the film’s creators have added an extra plot strand, namely, Bowden’s detective work on the outside, in order to round the story out.
While we’re inside the lift, we’re in familiar horror territory, with all the trimmings: flickering lights, bulging eyes, bloody wounds. Outside it, we’re in the realms of an old-fashioned whodunnit thriller.
And while these two disparate genres are woven with a sure hand, the seam’s there for all to see. There’s probably an earlier draft of Devil’s script still languishing in a drawer somewhere, in which the viewer is trapped inside the lift with its prisoners and Old Nick for the entire film. It’s a movie that would never have seen the inside of a multiplex, but would have been more original and far scarier as a result.
Instead, the constant cutting back and forth between the sweating faces in the elevator and Bowden’s largely inconsequential detective work outside results in a film whose tension constantly rises, only to collapse back down again.
The filmmakers just about get away with the rather quaint religious underpinnings of Devil’s story, but its conclusion will probably leave most audience members, at best, rolling their eyes or, at worst, storming from the cinema with their fists clenched in frustration.
Devil certainly isn’t a terrible film, however, and it’s not the disaster that some have predicted, or even morbidly hoped. Where Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender was a lumpen, ill-conceived mess, Dowdle’s supernatural thriller is competently made and low-key.
Unfortunately, Devil’s modesty is its own undoing. Taken by itself, the ‘Lucifer in a lift’ premise would make an intriguing, dialogue-heavy stage play. Wrapped up as it is in a broader thriller plot, Devil feels more like the pilot episode of a supernatural television show than a multiplex popcorn movie. It looks lost on a big screen as a result, its 80 minute running time seeming desperately thin.
It’s likely that Devil will make a far more effective case for itself on DVD and Blu-ray, and taken as the first act in a three part story (it’s the first of Shyamalan’s planned The Night Chronicles trilogy, with Reincarnate reportedly on the way), could provide an entertaining but flimsy piece of movie diabolism.
But by itself, on a big screen, with the lights out, this manifestation of the Devil proves frustratingly muted, and far less scary than the thought of being trapped in a lift with M Night Shyamalan’s recent back catalogue.