If I had to choose three people that I’d hate to be stuck in an elevator with, they’d be O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector, and Justin Bieber. However, M. Night Shyamalan would be a close fourth.
Coincidentally, Shyamalan translates the horror of spending countless hours in such an enclosed space with the aforementioned names in Devil, for which he wrote the story. But instead of featuring famed producers-turned-murderers, Devil follows five strangers as they’re locked in an elevator by Satan himself. Of course, once they start dying one-by-one they realize that the famed El Diablo is actually one of them. Only the question is — who?
Now to my surprise, Shyamalan didn’t actually direct the film, like the trailers made it out to seem; the film was actually helmed by Drew and John Erik Dowdle. But then again, the advertising campaign for Devil backfired horribly which was evident by the number of wholehearted laughs that the trailers would elicit from me when the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” came on screen. But Shyamalan doesn’t even pen the script either, in fact, the screenplay was written by Brian Nelson, which just makes me wonder why the marketing team even bothered to emphasis M. Night’s name in the trailers — it doesn’t make sense, especially since The Last Airbender (which was absolutely atrocious) is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
That being said, the effects of poor marketing were definitely felt during my viewing. First of all, I was the only person in the theater until ten minutes prior to the start of the film — keep in mind that screening rooms are usually decently full at this point. Secondly, there were only approximately ten people in the audience and we were handed the smallest room. Lastly, tickets were sold at a reduced price.
Fortunately, Devil is a relatively competent film. It’s nowhere nearly as bad as The Last Airbender and it remains decently entertaining throughout its entire running time even though it faces problems in story-telling (it becomes increasingly cliché and suffers from a lack of the tension that one would expect from a film like this).
It begins with an all too familiar aerial shot that is, of course, accompanied with a dramatic orchestral score, but the Dowdles try to mix it up and flip the image upside down for no apparent reason. In succession, a narration begins from Raimez’s (Jacob Vargas) point of view, who we later see in person as a security guard in the building in which the entire elevator fiasco takes place (if you notice, the building number is 333 — which is said to be a holy number). He tells about a tale that his mother told him while he was a child in which she talked about how the devil would occasionally take the form of a human and use this ability to torture a number of unlucky sinners before ultimately killing them.
Here’s the kicker — the sign that marks his arrival is a suicide and it’s at this point that we jump into the next scene which has someone hitting the roof of a truck after falling out of building #333. It’s here that we are introduced to Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) who shows signs of alcoholism and whose family was murdered by a hit-and-run driver and who later tries to save those locked in the elevator.
What’s interesting about the characters is how they’re implicitly described in the beginning of the film — especially the five strangers who enter the doomed elevator within a couple frames of Bowden’s introduction. We have: The mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), the young woman (Bojana Novokovic), the old woman (Jenny O’Hara), the guard (Bokeem Woodbine), and the mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend). Similar to John Hillcoat’s The Road, Devil sports several unnamed characters which are just defined by their profession — this means that the film absolutely had to focus on character details so we could differentiate them (you’d be surprised at how much a name helps in identifying a character). In this aspect, the movie does a good job — dropping several subtle hints while each character enters the elevator. One such example is that from the first scene involving the businessman, we can tell that he’s a womanizer just by the way that he looks at women passing by. Another example would be hints to the old woman’s claustrophobia which is shown when she refuses to get into an elevator because it’s too cramped.
From that point forward Devil follows a formula — of course it’s rainy outside to signify the horror and what-not, and of course the strangers start turning on each other. One thing that I did like about the elevator scenes, however, was the creepy elevator music. Not only did it infuriate the characters themselves, which made the elevator all the more torturous and thus tense, but it added atmosphere. Sadly, a security guard hits the kill-switch and thus shuts off the music which destroys the vibe.
The formula further suffers from horrid performances from the entire cast except Chris Messina, who remains competent at best. There is no chemistry between any of the characters; the only reason that I highlighted Messina was because it seemed as if he actually tried.
Of course, it all ends predictably and I can bet that most audience members will be able to guess the climax from a mile away. Devil has some interesting ideas but it ultimately fall flat due to the lack of claustrophobia, which in turn is caused by the lack of thrill, which stems from the clichéd writing. If Satan is really this predictable, then Hell must be a piece of cake.