SEPTEMBER 17, 2010
While it's not exactly a difficult feat, Devil is the best thing M. Night Shyamalan has been involved with since Signs, which is fitting as it explores similar themes at times (I won't go into specifics, potential spoiler material). Which is ironic, because I am of the opinion that he needs to let someone else write his scripts and just direct, but this is sort of the opposite: it's his story, but it's directed by John Dowdle, who made the STILL unreleased Poughkeepsie Tapes, which I quite liked, and Quarantine, which isn't a BAD film by any stretch of the imagination, just a bit on the needless side. And if this film is any indication, he's headed for bigger/better things.
The only real flaw the film has is that it might not have much repeat value, as much of its success depends on the audience trying to figure out which of the people in the elevator is the Devil before the people in the movie can (and, since this is M Night's story, find the other twist you know has to be in there somewhere). Luckily it's short enough (barely 80 minutes with credits) that a future viewing won't be too much of a bother. But man, is it one near perfect, sometimes almost unbearably suspenseful thriller. Brian Nelson's script never makes any character more or less obvious a choice as the Devil, which is a genius move on his part. Rather than make it the person you "least" expect, or "most", he simply keeps them all on a level playing field, and really, any of the 5 options would have been satisfactory in the end.
A while back I watched another elevator-set movie called Black Out, and that movie failed in this regard, by making the bad guy seem innocent - it was a dead giveaway. In Devil, we meet everyone around the same time, and since the elevator stops almost instantly, we know little to nothing about them prior to the understandable panic and paranoia that sets in when they realize they are stuck and begin pointing fingers and grilling one another on who they are, what they do etc. So there's no obvious hero, but more importantly, there's no obvious "they're trying to make you think this person is totally innocent" maneuvers either.
And yes, it's scary. I damn near jumped out of my seat at a scare involving a maintenance guy who is trying to figure out why the elevator stopped, and the occasional Devil "sightings" are brief enough to be scary/creepy but not long enough to be silly. I also like how pretty much every scare happens in total blackness. Obviously it has to be that way in order to preserve the mystery, but it also allows your imagination to run wild, using just the sound design (which is superb) to guide you.
Like The Descent, it also works as a claustrophobic nightmare, to the extent that even without the Devil stuff, the movie would still work. Admirably, the 5 of them never leave the elevator to engage in silly rescue/escape missions that you know won't be successful anyway. There are a number of POV shots and Dowdle (and his DP, the amazing Tak Fujimoto, who has shot most of Night's films) makes terrific use of the elevator's mirror to work everyone into a shot despite the cramped location. And I don't think it's spoiling much to say not everyone survives, so when the living have to share this tiny space with the dead, it becomes even more nerve-wracking.
But we can't stay on the elevator the whole time, because there's not enough there to work with for a full 80-90 minutes. Thankfully, Nelson's script provides a couple of security guards and a cop (the terrific Chris Messina - get this guy a starring role on a TV show or something!) that are interesting enough in their own right, so that when the movie focuses on what they're doing (trying to get the people out, trying to figure out who they are, etc) it's just as compelling as the elevator stuff. Some of Messina's character moments seem to be lost (the lovely Caroline Dhavernas appears as a forensics officer who Messina appears to have a relationship with, but her role is limited to 3 nearly wordless scenes - seems silly to hire a known actress for such a thin role), and I'm guessing some if not all of the deleted scenes on the eventual DVD will be about him and Dhavernas.
Which leads me to another great thing about the film - its relatively unknown cast (even more of a good thing since the way too famous cast was a major problem for me with Dowdle's Quarantine). Apart from Dhavernas, the only folks I recognized were Bokeem Woodbine (as one of the trapped folks/possible Devil) and Matt Craven, who played the head security guard. Going back to the "even playing field" thing, it adds to the suspense, because the actors are on just as equal ground as their characters. I've seen so many horror movies where a major twist is spoiled just by the casting of it - i.e. Frank Whaley is the killer in The Cell 2 because he's the only name. Woodbine has been around for a while but he's hardly an A list star, and thus his minor exception doesn't ruin things.
Now, one caveat - you might have noticed that this has some ties to religion (if the title didn't give that away from you). If the idea of God/everything happening for a reason bugs you, then don't see the movie. It does factor into the twist and if you don't believe in any sort of divine intervention or things of that nature, you're liable to hate the 3rd act revelations. Everyone else will be rewarded with a film that uses religion as a backdrop but doesn't force it down our throats or come across as preachy. This is never more than a movie about real people stuck in a horrible situation; it's not some sort of Catholic propaganda masquerading as a horror film.
It's been a pretty slow year for major release horror films, but the odd thing is most of them have been really good for a change. Now that it's Halloween-time, we literally have them coming out every week, so this could change by November, but for now, Devil ranks as one of the year's best genre films - it's the most suspenseful one since Frozen, the first since Crazies to actually make me jump at a scare, and most importantly it's just plain entertaining - can someone tell me how a movie about 5 people trapped in an elevator managed to be more exciting and fun than the one about God sending angels down to kill us all? Or the one about a bunch of hot chicks killing zombies in 3D? I just hope future "Night Chronicles" (it actually has a "1" after the logo) are as strong, because the bar has been set quite high.
What say you?