It hasn’t been a good year for M. Night Shyamalan. And reasonably so, as his adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender is widely considered one of the worst films of the year. Coupled this with his relatively weak The Happening and his poor Lady in the Water, audience and critical expectations from the man is anything but good.
Shyamalan did not direct or write Devil. Sure, the man came up with the idea for the story, and is the executive producer, but his touch on the film is much less than we would expect. Director John Erick Dowdle is thus able to make a film that is clearly a bit freer from the confines of Shyamalan’s inherent expectations. It’s a little gorier than most Shyamalan films, so it’s obvious that the film is in the hands of a more literal director. Unfortunately, while it’s not horrifically bad, it is still a mediocre film.
As the first film in what is now called The Night Chronicles, Devil is based upon the folkloric belief that the Devil will take the form of a human, bring together people deserving of going to hell, torments them for a spell, before finally killing them. These torments are always preceded by a suicide, which is the very first thing we see in the film after the disconcerting upside down presentation of Philadelphia, an effect that is creepy at once yet means nothing to the plot of the film.
Anyway, this old wives tale plays out perfectly, with five people nonchalantly entering an elevator, and not all of them make it out. We’ve got the selfish rich woman (Bojana Novakovic), the neurotic old lady (Jenny O’Hara), the claustrophobic temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), the skeeze bag salesman (Geoffrey Arnend), and the quiet mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green). All of them have dark history they are not willing to share, and while the five of them might seem locked together, they are not technically alone. The police and security guards are able to see what happens, and are able to talk to the five victims, but the elevator crew are unable to talk back. It’s an interesting dynamic, making for a voyeuristic approach to horror that is subtle, yet feels undeveloped. Which is a shame, as the set-up is particularly unique.
The main character that delivers an emotional progression for the audience to latch on to is Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), an alcoholic detective still mourning the death of his wife and son five years previously. He watches the entirety of the elevator shenanigans and is likable enough due to his charm that covers the broken man that he truly is. His progression isn’t exactly the most dynamic or original, but it’s a backbone to Devil that makes it more than just a cheap psychological horror film.
And that’s exactly what Devil is, a cheaply made psychological horror film. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and while gore is present, this is far from a gory film. The five elevator prisoners are somewhat flat, considering they don’t have that much to do. While another film might better explore the horrors of confinement, use the forced interactions of this confined public space as exposition on the issues of public identity, the elevator within Devil is nothing more than a cage to keep these people in a single location to let terrible events happen.
It’s a shame, as the whole premise is rather intriguing; but what unfolds doesn’t hold a candle to what could’ve been. Supernatural things happen to not so good people, no one can stop it, and that’s about it. Acting is passable, and things are just blamed on the devil without question. It ultimately feels like the movie doesn’t respect the viewers enough to challenge or make us think. It just goes through the motions for an unsurprising ending.
And the worst part: Most people will guess the famous “Shyamalan Switch” that happens at the end of all of his films, even with a fairly early red herring. Let me tell you, dead readers, your first guess at the culprit is probably right, and that’s the ultimate letdown.