“Turn on the lights!”
What can I say about M. Night Shyamalan that hasn’t already been said? After exploding onto the scene with surprise hit The Sixth Sense and audience-dividing blockbusters Unbreakable and Signs, his more recent films have gone from baffling (Lady in the Water) to unintentionally hilarious (The Happening) to ungodly offenses against the art of filmmaking and all of humanity (The Last Airbender).
Now Shyamalan brings us his “Night Chronicles” series of films, which he says is his take on The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and also his way of “giving back” by acting as producer for up and coming indie filmmakers. First up is Devil, from writer Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) and director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine).
It’s an ordinary day at a big-business high rise in Philadelphia. Five strangers board an elevator only to have it get stuck in between floors. While in there, strange things happen. The lights flicker on and off, strange sounds are heard, and one passenger even suffers a brutal injury that no one can explain. Police arrive on the scene and try to get everyone out. One security guard, however, knows that there’s another passenger in that elevator: the devil.
Yes, it really is the devil. That’s not a spoiler, because the movie spills the beans right at the start. Devil begins with a Bible quote, followed by a voiceover telling us all about the nature of the devil, how he operates, and so on. The problem with this is that it kills all sense of mystery that movie attempts. Instead of wondering whether there’s something logical or something supernatural behind the goings-on in that elevator, viewers will instead be impatient waiting for good ol’ Beelzebub to show up. While the police outside the elevator fret over which person inside might be responsible, the audience has already been told it’s the devil. There’s no “is it the devil or isn’t it?” question for audiences to ponder.
This movie takes itself a lot more seriously than it should. It wants to blend scares with thought-provokingness, but the mix doesn’t work in this case. I sat down to watch “people trapped in an elevator where scary stuff happens to them,” and instead I got “people trapped in an elevator where scary stuff happens to them as a parable about the nature of evil, the power of forgiveness, and how the choices we make have consequences.” If all the stuff about choices and forgiveness were played with subtlety, it might have worked. Instead, the pseudo-theology is so clumsily handled that it feels out of place. The word “pretentious” is not one that I like to use, but I can think of no better way to describe this movie.
The five hapless victims in the elevator are stock types—the gruff security guard, the wisecracking salesman, the uppity hot babe, the bitter old lady, and the on-edge tough guy. They’re supposed to be ordinary, everyday folks caught up in horrors they can’t imagine, right? Instead, these are all unlikable characters right at the start, saying and doing mean-spiriting things right from the beginning. This where the movie’s muddled theology again comes into play. The devil has come for them because they’re bad people, right? Then why is there all this talk about forgiveness? Either way, from a pure storytelling perspective, making all five people in the elevator total jerks doesn’t make things easy for an audience who has spend the entire movie trapped in there with them.
Then there’s religious security guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas, Death Race), who’s not so much an unlikable character as he is a completely ridiculous character. OK, every supernatural thriller needs that one guy who knows all about the supernatural to explain matters to our heroes and, by extension, to the audience. The problem with Ramirez is that just after the five are trapped in the elevator, he almost immediately jumps to the conclusion that not only is the devil responsible, but that the devil is reenacting an old story he learned as a child. Instead of being the one character who knows what’s really going on, Ramirez instead comes off like a loon. I imagine the guy going to work in the morning thinking, “Traffic’s slow today; it must be the devil! My coffee’s cold; it must be the devil! I stubbed my toe; it must be the devil!”
Is anything good here? Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) plays the sharp-eyed cop who arrives at the scene and tries to handle the crisis. It’s a great character—flawed, but generally a good person. Moreover, the questions he asks and the way he reacts once inside the building makes sense. He’s thinking and acting like a confident, responsible person might. The down-to-earth nature of the character makes him far more relatable than the jerkwads inside the elevator, the ones we’re supposed to be identifying with. Also, the movie is nicely filmed, using a lot of hand-held POV shots to keep the elevator scenes from getting stale, and a totally trippy opening sequence showing a flyover of the city turned upside down.
The video and audio are solid on the DVD, with an audio standout being scenes of total darkness relying only on sound effects and the actors’ voices. There are three featurettes, which disappoint. “The Story” is almost entirely clips from the movie with a few short interview snippets with the filmmakers. “The Devil’s Meeting,” is all the same clips with a few short interview snippets from a professor of mythology and folklore, as if to lend some credence to the movie’s confused theology. “The Night Chronicles” has all the same clips again, with a few short interview snippets about plans for the series.
For the whole “claustrophobic thriller” thing to work, it has to be done with efficiency. It has to be a taut thriller, lean and mean, without any superfluous elements thrown into the mix. In Devil, the creators are attempting a claustrophobic thriller that also has a lot of big, big ideas thrown into the mix. These two elements end up at odds with each other, and the film is a disappointment because of it.