Smith’s Verdict: **1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
God works in mysterious ways. But so does the Devil. From what I’ve heard in Sunday school growing up, the Devil is cold, calculating, seductive, ruthless, and very subtle in his schemes of drawing people over to the dark side before consuming their souls in hell. This supernatural thriller, “Devil,” does not represent him well, for reasons I’ll go into shortly. But to be fair, it is kind of fun. This is a “guilty pleasure” for me, to say the least (or the most).
Based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, “Devil” is as much “Shyamalan” as you could expect. It has a spiritual message, it has tormented characters finding redemption after going through a paranormal occurrence, and you may recognize a few silly elements he used in “Lady in the Water” or “The Happening” (to be fair, those are two of my guilty pleasures too). Just to get this out of the way, I don’t hate M. Night Shyamalan. I love “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” “Unbreakable” gets better and better each time I see it, “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening” are too goofy for me to hate, and he came back from a career slump in a major way last year with “The Visit.” I didn’t see the critically panned “After Earth,” but I despise “The Last Airbender,” which seemed to make even his defenders turn their backs on him. “Devil” came out the same year as “The Last Airbender,” and there was a hate train chugging along because even though it wasn’t directed by Shyamalan (it was directed by John Erick Dowdle), it had his fingerprints all over it. But I can’t hate it—like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” it’s too goofy for me to hate.
The premise sounds fantastic until it gets to the fine print. Five strangers are trapped in a broken-down elevator. But one of them is a killer. The power is faulty, and the killer strikes whenever the lights go out. Police and maintenance race to save the remaining bunch of claustrophobic people before they too are killed off one by one. Sounds like a Hitchcock or an Agatha Christie scenario, doesn’t it? Well…I don’t think Hitchcock or Christie would’ve made the killer the Devil.
And yes, the hook is that the Devil is one of the people trapped in the elevator, and that’s where the horror is supposed to come from, I suppose—not just that there’s a sadistic killer on board, but that person must also be the Devil come to take the rest to hell. How do we know this? Well, one of the building’s security guards (Jacob Vargas), a highly religious type, points out the signs that direct to the situation due to a story told to him as a child by his grandmother. But that’s not all—what else does he have to prove the Devil is near? He takes a piece of toast with jelly on it and throws it up in the air, and it lands jelly-side down. “When he is near,” he shakily concludes, “Toast falls jelly-side down.” I get what the writer is trying to do—use mundane materials to point toward the supernatural (like in “Signs,” with the baby monitor picking up an otherworldly signal)—but some ways of doing it are more lame than others (remember the Simon game in the fifth “Paranormal Activity” movie?).
As I said before, five people (Logan Marshall-Green as a mechanic, Jenny O’Hara as a crabby old lady, Geoffrey Arend as an unctuous salesman, Bokee, Woodbine as a temp security guard, and Bojana Novakovic as a manipulative woman) are trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia high rise. Working on the problem are two security guards (Vargas and Matt Craven) and police detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who can see them via security cam. After a while, one of them is murdered, with no telling of whom of the remaining four did it. Every time the lights go out due to defective power, one of them ends up dead. While the race is on to get the elevator working again and save whoever is left, Vargas gives Bowden his conclusion that the killer is the Devil in disguise. Naturally, Bowden doesn’t believe him at first, but the further things escalate, the less he can deny the truth.
It turns out to be true—the Devil has decided to send some people to hell today and, for some reason, it takes him all day to do it, and it’s not even in a secretive way, seeing as how it’s all happening on closed-circuit cameras. When you really think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. And it gets sillier from there, with images of monstrous faces showing up in the surveillance monitor, one of the women being “bitten” by the Devil, and even a preposterous, laughable death by hanging. And with the security guard constantly speaking script-talk for “the Devil is near,” we get an angel in disguise, just so we can have an understanding of what we’re dealing with here.
To the film’s credit, all of the actors are uniformly good and Shyamalan-regular Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography is well-done. And even some of the spiritual elements are surprisingly interesting, despite them being too convenient especially in the film’s climax.
Despite this missed opportunity to create a truly chilling, claustrophobic thriller, I find myself enjoying “Devil,” mainly for the things I laugh at, in addition to the things in it that are consistently good. It just so happens the laughable things are consistently laughable, so it all balances out. Like “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” “Devil” is a guilty pleasure I can’t help but enjoy each time.