Nick Nunziata: M. Night Shyamalan is a lot like Alfred Hitchcock. They are both bipeds and subsist on a diet of air, water, and food. Where they differ is in their mastery of their craft and their ability to create interesting and effective thrills from high concepts, but otherwise they’re identical.
M. Night has parlayed his brand into something that has resulted in films of little to no relevance since 2002’s Signs but somehow there’s still enough life to his name that allows him to produce a series of low budget horror shows under his new The Night Chronicles shingle, serving as a sort of Rod Serling over the proceedings. Devil is the first movie in that franchise, a film M. Night created the story of and one which lives under the blanket of his name, but one which is written and directed by other people. In this case 30 Days of Night and Hard Candy writer Brian Nelson and Quarantine and The Poughkeepsie Tapes director John Erick Dowdle (and his uncredited brother Drew). As is the case with many of M. Night’s projects, there’s a line being tread between what the man thinks is terrifying and what is downright goofy. Devil is the story of five people trapped in an elevator, one of whom is the Devil. It would be very fun and easy to just eviscerate this movie but hold your horses.
It’s not horrible.
Justin Waddell: Nick’s right. If you were at all entertained by the trailer, it’s going to be hard to walk out of the movie saying, “That SUCKED!” The trailer doesn’t lie – it’s one goofy flick. Satan wreaks havoc in an elevator. PERIOD. What I didn’t know before plopping down to watch this with a nightmarishly priced jug of Coke Zero, is that Devil is a starring vehicle for Chris Messina. I thought the actor was excellent in a small role in last year’s Away We Go. And he’s good here playing a detective (with a tragic past, of course) who is in a race against time to….get some hard facts about the ne’er-do-well’s in the jammed elevator. His is not the only good performance in the movie. But I’ll let Nick or Renn bring up the legendary Matt Craven later on in the review.
Renn Brown: It’s a Twilight Zone episode with ten million bucks. And some Bokeem where needed. Chris Messina’s Detective works well enough as the core of the film. Bojana Novakovic works as the woman in the elevator who might have a dark secret, as does Jenny O’Hara as the older woman who might have a dark secret. Logan Marshall-Green, who is some weird kind of amalgam of Jeremy Renner and Tom Hardy, plays an Iraq Vet who left his dark secret in the bathroom. Bokeem Woodbine plays a secret dark.
Devil is mercifully short and has enough fun or interesting bits that it’s not worth ending it all if the movie plays near you for some reason. If you were thinking perhaps the stripped down nature of the film and the writer/director buffer would keep this from being too much of a Shyamalan ordeal… you were almost kinda nearly right. The film is still M. Nighted up enough to be completely silly though, with those tin-eared religious overtones he’s so fond of clumsily smeared over everything. I’ll give John Erick Dowdle credit for managing to pull off some fun moments and imagery, that shine through the sheen of Shyamalan.
Nick: I don’t know about fun. I wasn’t having fun. I was having my ears blasted with stringed instruments as composer Fernando Velázquez did a ‘subtle as a helicopter to the chops’ shock and awe campaign on my soul as the film’s opening credits unfolded over an upside-down Philadelphia (mostly played by Toronto in the movie). M. Night and his associates love the old school attack here with stabs of orchestra sound to the cortex to keep the viewer uneasy. It worked but more because it was midnight and I’d just paid to see a Bokeem Woodbine film theatrically. When I got the tickets the cashier said ‘Sir, it is my responsibility to offer you a proactive refund or a gift certificate to suicide counseling due to the screen time of Mr. Woodbine in this film. Do you realize he’s all over this movie?”. Indeed he is, holding center stage as the most vocal elevator patron in the group, hissing at the others and threatening to kick people’s asses.
But the conceit isn’t a horrible one. People trapped in an elevator could make for some interesting scenarios, and to some extent they do a decent job of capturing the uncertainty and rising dread that those confines offer. But it’s not just a little horror movie. They have to Saw it up and have the box be a metaphor/purgatory where these flawed people must come to terms with their bad deeds. Everyone in the elevator is guilty of something so in addition to their own foibles and boiling points being reached there’s the damn Devil. The Devil is in one of these assholes. Which is bullshit, because the Devil likes escalators.
It’s neat as a fable, and the whole film feels like an Outer Limits episode stretched to feature length. It’s not a whole movie. The characters barely register (aside from a few of the folks outside the elevator that we’ll discuss more soon) and it feels more like an experiment than an actual film. Ideas and possibilities are everywhere but where the film actually chooses to go offers very little in terms of fear or onscreen horror but once again it’s not horrible. Just odd.
By the way, they should keep Philadelphia upside-down forever.
Justin: Speaking of that upside-down shot, the movie does feel crafted rather than thrown together. I liked how the filmmakers played with audience expectations by cutting away from the action at just the right moments. So, I liked the flow of things. And at a breezy 80 minutes, the thing doesn’t really have a chance to overstay its welcome. Intro. Trapped. Weirdness. Satan. Outro. Xtro (I wish.) The question remains – should you venture out to see this thing this weekend? That’s up to you. But no one is going to blame you for waiting to catch this at 2:15 am on Starz one night in the near future. If nothing else, you now have a movie to pair with the Naomi Watts/James Marshell 2001 A.I. elevator horror flick The Shaft. A theme movie night! A great movie night. A not great M. Night. This poor guy. He DOES manage to get his twist ending in there, by the way. There’s also, no joke, a brief bit of dialogue about the word “twist.” Shyamalan flicks just kind of eat themselves, no?
Renn: I will also credit the movie for (kinda) delivering the one thing I was hoping for- long stretches of complete darkness with only sound to guide us. They never push the envelope with the length of a dark screen, nor is there anything terribly inventive done, but the sound work was solid and it created a nice attempt at tension building. The film is never scary though. Even the cheap jump scares are ineffective, which makes the whole thing feel even more like a television episode. The acting is right at about television level as well, even with Matt Craven classing up the joint with his years of security wisdom. Wisdom that guides him to never call the building manager, send a maintenance guy up and down the building by himself a half dozen times, delay calling the police for way too long, and worst of all, disregard his generic Hispanic partner who has very specific religious information. Oddly, Officer Ramirez (yep, they pulled deep for that one) is simultaneously the narrator, and a character within the story, though he dumps similar expository spiritual rules as both. It’s a silly attempt to make a cheesy horror concept become something much more profound, and as Nick mentioned, it’s weak business. There is a failure to understand that melodramatic spiritual themes blurted all over a movie about a fucking stuck elevator, all backed by overbearing violin cues, is going to make people laugh, not scare them. It’s a testament to how profoundly out of touch M. Night really is.
Nick: I hate the “kills” in this movie because it’s cheaper than cheap. The lights go out, a bunch of scary noises happen, and then the lights come on and someone is on their way off into MyDeathSpace.com. It’s a horrible device because, while M. Night did a good job with the idea in Signs it just feels cheap here. If there was a Devil, I think he’d show off a little more. There’s that one shot from the trailer of the masked Jacob’s Ladder dude sneaking up on Bokeem and it has no place in the story. I wanted more monsters, more hate, and more fury. What I got was a hodgepodge of dogshits.
Also, though it made me jump I’m still figuring out what the jumper at the beginning was all about.
Justin: Nick, allow me to clarify. The jumper at the beginning signaled the start of the Devil’s detailed plan. According to the narration, 1) There’s a suicide. 2) The Devil then rounds up a bunch of sinners. 3) Satan disguises himself, traps, torments, and kills said sinners until there is only one left. 4) The last sinner is killed in front of the person that loves him/her the most. 5) Easy Pieces. 6)6)6) The Devil apologizes for hurting Matt Craven. I think the one thing we have to remember….while it’s fun to give M. Night shit, and his name, fingerprints, and headstone rubbings are all over the movie, it’s tough to know how involved he really was. He didn’t write it. He didn’t direct. He didn’t have a book written about his experiences making it called “The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Devil in Elevator Movie.” He’s credited with creating the story. But maybe he just said to screenwriter Brian Nelson, “I like Angel Heart and 12 Angry Men. Go!”
Fun fact: Mel Gibson’s poisonshot daughter from Edge Of Darkness is in this. She’s the one that gets backbit in the trailer.
Unfun fact: Mel Gibson.
Renn: Well if it’s the case that M. Night wasn’t particularly involved, the writer and director certainly went out of their way to ape his style. It’s a shame the filmmakers were unable or unwilling to bring their own voice to this story. Though I will admit, this hollow imitation makes for a more effective use of the Shyamalan (ca. Signs) voice than the last time M. Night tried to speak to us.
Frankly, Devil is competent, but only just. More films like it are going to be made under the same banner, and if they maintain this quality or even improve, then the results will be a few more inoffensive thrillers for late-night background noise. Nobody’s getting made or broken by Devil, but if they keep people like Matt Craven and critters like Portentous Basement Raccoon and Ominous Roof Pigeon working, then so be it.
Nick: the movie wasn’t nearly as bad or good as I wanted it to be.
5.5 out of 10
Justin: I’m not exactly looking forward to the other entries in The Night Chronicles series. But the goofy premise, game acting, and execution put me more pro than con.
6 out of 10 — Lucifer’s lucky digit.
Renn: Devil doesn’t inspire excitement, or hate, or much of anything at all. If the popcorn, soda, and company is especially good, you’d do better in a theater with a blank screen this weekend.
5 out of 10