Oh boy, M. Night Shyamalan has been getting a lot of flak these days. After a string of critically damned movies like The Happening and Lady in the Water, Shyamalan finally hit a wall with The Last Airbender, and that's when his namesake became a joke. Literally.
Seeing the trailer for Devil trailer in theaters, every time the title "From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan" would come on screen, the entire theater would either boo or laugh. Soon even CollegeHumor.com was in on the joke, making a hilarious parody of M. Night's situation.
So, you can imagine my apprehension towards a movie like Devil, but to be fair, it wasn't directed or written by Shyamalan. M. Night receives story by credit and produced the film under his Night Chronicles banner. I thought perhaps director John Erick Dowdle and screenwriter Brian Nelson could bring a fresh approach to the otherwise innovative ideas Shyamalan was capable of, but hasn't delivered on in a long time.
Devil carries a premise that is pitch-perfect for the Twilight Zone- a prickly salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a well-dressed professional (Bojana Novakovic), a security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a crabby old lady (Jenny O'Hara) and a hoodie-clad mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green) play Ten Little Indians in an elevator stuck in a Philadelphia high-rise while a police detective (Chris Messina) investigating a nearby suicide monitors the action from closed-circuit television screens as he tries to deduce which one of them is the killer. Sounds fun, right?
Well, even at a svelte 76 minutes, the film is stretched thin and the scare tactics start to repeat themselves. We're treated to a hell of an opening shot- a disorienting, upside-down flyover of Philly, which descends into said elevator shaft, a move Hitchcock would have been proud of. But that's where the similarities to the master of suspense end. With an awkward narration involving murmurings of Heaven and Hell like the kind you'd hear around a campfire, we come to find that one of the security guards watching the events unfold in the elevator next to Messina's detective, knows more about what's going on, and it's outside the realm of conventional science or criminology.
Yes, Devil lives up to its simple name in the fact that the perpetrator of the crimes within the elevator is actually Satan himself, which means that one of the five people trapped in the elevator must be the notorious biblical nemesis... but who? The epic good-versus-evil notion thereby takes what could have been an exceptionally taught, smart and harrowing low-budget thriller and thrusts it into the realm of inanity and ineptitude. This is not to say that the directing is necessarily bad, as Dowdle makes good use of confined spaces, but the writing is sometimes howlingly sub-par, often dolling out lines of dialogue that will make you cringe.
Simply put, it's a clever idea bogged down by pontification on classic religious themes and an innate need to keep the characters flatly drawn. Before they start repeating themselves, the scares are actually rather effective, but Dowdle and Nelson never really figure out how to effectively keep it fresh, and after a while, you even start preparing yourself to be let down by the now-expected Shyamalan twist.
It's really a shame that Devil wasn't a better movie. If there's anything that Shyamalan needs right now, it's a reason for audiences not to laugh at him. Well, Devil doesn't deliver him from sin, and franlky, it doesn't bode well for the future installments of The Night Chronicles. But hey, at least it was better than The Last Airbender.