After the subtle nuances of hydro-allergenic aliens and evil trees, M. Night Shyamalan has gone back to scratch. Old Scratch, that is. Devil is Shyamalan’s take on what happens when Satan decides to get a head start on some naughty sinners.
For this film, M. Night Shyamalan has stepped out of the director’s chair, but kept his hands on the producer reins and came up with the concept for the story. Even if the film does not look like traditional Shyamalan, it feels like it. For those whose last Shyamalan outing involved Airbenders, this will give the opening credits an artificial sense of dread.
As we are told by our omniscient security guard narrator, the devil likes to round up a few of the already damned and stir up crazy shenanigans — all the while making sure he has an audience to witness the carnage. For this escapade, Satan channels his inner Jigsaw and traps five people in an elevator.
Inside the elevator, we have an old lady, a pretty lady, a smarmy mattress salesman, a puppy-eyed war veteran and a claustrophobic security guard. Outside the elevator is the building security team and the Philadelphia police led by troubled Detective Bowden, whose family tragedy has left him a religious cynic.
Despite the spiritual nature of the movie, we are spared a reprisal of Shyamalan’s humble role as Lady in the Water’s chosen messiah. The actual acting talent in the movie is little to write home about. However, it gets the job done, even if it is a rather boring job.
Talk to any 5-year-old and you will find there are plenty of mischievous things to do in an elevator. In Devil, it’s little more than flashing lights, shattered mirrors and perhaps a few inappropriate touches. Oh, and people start dying.
The rest of the film is split between our elevator victims going crazy and our detectives digging up a slew of convoluted subplots. Meanwhile, there’s just enough paranormal sparks to remind us that this is a horror film.
Director John Erick Dowdle tries hard to keep things tense and claustrophobic. Creative with the limited space of an elevator, he manages to keep the camera from becoming too static. The Hitchcockian soundtrack, also true to Shyamalan form, makes every trumpet-heavy effort to add drama. They really do try their best. The problem lies in the narrative.
Although Shyamalan did not write the screenplay, he crafted the story. It bears many of his overused, kitschy trappings — characters with spotty pasts, histories that predictably intertwine and earnest attempts at transcending horror and hitting some deep vein of human emotion. In this case, Shyamalan’s message to the world is taking responsibility for our actions and embracing forces beyond ourselves.
With all of this tightly crafted introspection, there’s little room for horror. There’s little room for just mild discomfort, except the awareness that boredom is setting in. That is the true devilry of the film — Devil is not god-awful, but it is very underwhelming.
Even a cheap horror film can spice up an hour and a half with jumpy startles and silly teenagers. Devil takes itself too seriously to resort to cheap scares, but never achieves the unsettling factor necessary to be an intellectual horror film. Neither Jigsaw nor Dr. Caligari would be amused.
M. Night Shyamalan had the chance to get really creepy. He’s using the devil, not some random alien or ghost. This is a character buried in many of our minds since childhood and already carries connotations and a backstory. He could have gone a different route and said something interesting and disturbing about the nature of evil and Satan among us. If anyone has read Paradise Lost or seen The Prophecy, Lucifer can be an interesting character by himself. But this Lucifer tops out at copping feels and rewiring elevators. Pretty lame for the caretaker of hell.
The backstories of the characters, and how they intertwine, could also have been more interesting. Instead, although they might not be predictable, they are hardly surprising . Though Shyamalan offers no aliens-who-are-allergic-to-water twists, the end of the film feels thoroughly arrived at and not as a result of solid storytelling.
Ultimately, the lesson we take from Devil is this: If your day seems like a string of random disasters, blame it on gremlins or fairies. The devil’s not boring enough for a movie this tepid.