It’s no secret that M Night Shyamalan hasn’t been having a very good run lately. He’s delivered a string of gradually worsening films that reached a new low with the hilariously awful The Last Airbender (seriously, it’s really fucking bad). So when the trailer for Devil first surfaced online, the backlash was deafening. I don’t think most people even knew that he didn’t actually direct it, all they saw was “from the mind of M Night Shyamalan ” and that was enough for them to pre-emptively judge the film. This is kind of a shame really, since if anything, Devil has actually raised my opinion of the troubled filmmaker. Sure, he may have only have come up with the story, hell, he may have just blurted out “five guys in an elevator and one of them might be the Devil!” and then just grabbed a check and ran from the room laughing manically. But I’ve always thought the guy has a knack for interesting stories, although the same just can’t be said about his writing and directing skills. So in this case, I respect the man for stepping aside and allowing director John Erick Dowdle (Qurantine) to bring this intriguing idea to life in is the first instalment of The Night Chronicles. Anyway, excuse the M Night ramble and let’s get on with the review!
High concept thrillers seem to be all the rage in Hollywood right now. We’ve already had people stuck on a chairlift in Frozen, Ryan Reynolds stuck in a box in Buried, and the forthcoming 127 Hours promises us James Franco stuck under a rock. Devil continues this current trend with its five strangers (Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green and Jenny O’Hara) stuck in an elevator premise. Only to make matters worse, and to add a unique twist on this already claustrophobic setting, the trapped individuals may possibly be sharing their close confines with the Devil himself. And when the lights go out, one by one these unlucky strangers feel the horned one’s merciless and murderous wrath… The tight narrative Devil posseses allows for an effectively taught and briskly paced thriller, packed with enough twists and turns to leave you guessing right up until the very end. The film feels like it was written with ‘fun’ stamped all over it, as it never tries to do anything other than entertain the audience. And in this respect, the film succeeds where most Hollywood blockbusters have failed as of late.
Devil starts with a simple, yet ingenious attention grabbing opening sequence. We’ve all seen the usual helicopter shots of a city skyline as the opening credits play a thousand times. Devil spices this familiar hallmark by flipping these shots on their head so we’re flying over the city upside down. Not only is this sequence visually stunning, it also sets the off-kilter tone for what is about to come. This striking cinematography rears its head often, allowing the film to provide some very pleasing camera work, while effectively underlining the film with a tense atmosphere at the same time.
Since I suffer mildly from claustrophobia myself, the idea of getting stuck in an elevator is a horrifying prospect. Having the lights switch off and finding myself simultaneously attacked by an unseen demonic force would literally send me insane. So it’s a testament to each of the lead characters that I could genuinely believe their initial sense of unease that eventually gives way to full blown terror. And that’s one of Devil’s strongest points; each of the characters brings something different and unique to the table, while at the same leaving the audience unsure whom exactly we should be rooting for. None of our unlucky victims are completely innocent and the film plays to this. It doesn’t take long for tempers to flare and accusations to be thrown, and soon enough this gang starts tearing themselves apart without any extra help. And even though we’re clued in on who the real troublemaker is, this still creates an intense dynamic that adds an extra layer of tension over the proceedings. The only truly likeable character on show is Chris Messina’s portrayal of a dedicated police officer with a troubled past. His strict, professional manner gives way to a truly human character who genuinely cares for the seemingly innocent characters threatened by a force he can’t comprehend.
Although for the most part Devil is an entertaining thrill ride, it’s still not without a fair share of questionable aspects. My first issue comes courtsey of the all-too familiar religious Hispanic character who immediately manages to assess the strange happenings and come to the logical conclusion that the Devil is to blame. I know we as an audience need some explanation to what’s going on, but we really didn’t need this character to spell this out to us at such an early stage of the proceedings. Plus surely we deserve a better form of plot enlightenment than the old religious foreigner routine. Next up, all too frequently I found the big reveals and shock moments to come across a little underwhelming. I still thoroughly enjoyed most of these moments, I just feel that once the lights started to flicker out in the elevator, I should have been on the edge of my seat, my body rigid with terror. Instead I sat back and watched these moments take place with nary a hair on the back of neck raising to attention. But hey, maybe I’ve just become desensitised to this sort of thing due to my over exposure of the horror genre. Lastly, for a movie that really needed to deliver a satisfying resolution, Devil sorely disappoints. As usual I won’t divulge any details here, all I’ll say is that the big reveal isn’t a terrible idea on paper, it was just executed in an incredibly cheesy and unintentionally funny fashion, that it’s impossible not to feel a little let down when leaving the theatre, despite the previous eighty minutes of solid entertainment that preceded this.
All in all, Devil is a damn good time. Despite its faults, the majority of the film is a strong effort that constantly entertains right up to the final minutes. Not even a single frame is wasted in dragging the audience into the desperate situation unfolding onscreen. Engines are set at full speed ahead as the film plows through its pleasantly brief runtime towards the somewhat disappointing finale. So while I still give Devil the thumbs up, I wouldn’t recommend dropping everything you’re doing and rushing out to catch it in the cinema. In fact, in a weird way I feel like the film could actually play better as a DVD rental. Nothing about the film screams big screen, and as if to prove this point further, the film kind of feels like an extended episode from The Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories. Still, if all you’re after is eighty odd minutes of straight up entertainment, then look no further than Devil’s rollercoaster ride of thrills and scares.
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