Devil does enough things well for M. Night Shyamalan to earn back a little cred. It’s a solid base hit, good enough to get a runner to second if he’s lucky. It doesn’t knock anything out of the park, but then, maybe it’s not supposed to. While it was originally touted somewhat as a return to form for Shyamalan, it doesn’t have the same swing as Signs, or even Unbreakable. Those were real movies—one a home run, the other a ground ball that earned the runner a trip all the way around the bases. Devil, though … it might fit on the shelf with The Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories. (Maybe. More on that later.) It’s good, but maybe not big screen good.
This is not to say it’s bad; TV has enjoyed a greater crop of storytelling over its celluloid cousin for a few years now. John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) handles things behind the camera competently enough not to show his hand at direction. It definitely looks and feels like a movie, even if the story doesn’t quite meet the challenge. Devil is more pulp horror, a good creep-out on a lazy afternoon that doesn’t ask too much for you to enjoy it.
Five strangers find themselves trapped on an elevator. A man in the building committed suicide earlier that morning, which means, if we’re to believe the humble narrator, that the devil is afoot.
Each of our five main players has a past, and all of them are ugly. The detective investigating the suicide finds himself involved in the effort to free the passengers. He knows there’s something suspicious going on, but he’s not too sure it means the devil is up to anything tricky.
Then, wouldn’t you know it, the lights go out, and when they come back up, one of our five passengers has died. We’ve all heard this campfire tale before.
The script deserves credit for unfolding the plot’s events and revelations in a natural progression. Nothing leaps in from out of nowhere, and every thread receives a knot. Shyamalan has a story credit on the film, meaning he at least wrote a treatment, which was then fleshed out into a screenplay by Brian Nelson (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night). It sticks to convention, squeezes out nice amounts of tension and paranoia before delivering a nice little Shyamalan twist at the end. Discerning viewers might see it coming—another notable horror film has already used this trick, but it’s still a stunner.
Most of the characters are stock, over-caffeinated types that play well for conflict. Once more, the writing deserves credit for how it treats the story’s prophetic voice. The narrator, we learn, is a building security guard. What he knows about the devil comes from the tales his grandmother used to tell him. He’s the wise man here, and of course, he’s maligned by everyone until the nonsense he’s spouting starts to make a little sense. He’s a true prophet. We often consider prophets, wrongly, as foretellers. Some Old Testament prophets did foretell future events, but most took on the more conventional role of forth-tellers. They looked at the world and provided the vision to help the chaos make a little more sense.
The treatment of the devil here does manage to rise above convention, at least a little. Usually, a movie like this will place the devil on equal footing with God, yin to yang, both generic ciphers for good and evil. It’s only during the final reveal when “the solution” occurs that the story actually tries to point toward something more. Most films like this wouldn’t even bother to mention Jesus Christ, unless it was pejorative. This film doesn’t say his name, but it does at least nod in his direction. That’s all I’ll say.
The film’s opening logos start with something else a little out of the ordinary. This is the first entry in what’s called “The Night Chronicles.” The ghostly image of silhouetted hands reaching up to a window fades into a pulpy number one, indicating that Devil is just the first part of something bigger. Devil sticks too close to convention, but it uses convention to decent effect. The next chapter will have to turn things up a notch to make The Night Chronicles a serious contender for the affection fans usually reserve for The Twilight Zone.
Story by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by Brian Nelson
Directed by John Erick Dowdle