Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay by Brian Nelson and M. Night Shyamalan
Chris Messina as Detective Bowden
Logan Marshall-Green as Mechanic / Tony
Jenny O’Hara as Old Woman
Bojana Novakovic as Young Woman / Sarah
Bokeem Woodbine as Guard / Ben
Geoffrey Arend as Salesman / Vince
Jacob Vargas as Ramirez
Matt Craven as Lustig
Joshua Peace as Detective Markowitz
Caroline Dhavernas as Elsa Nahai
We promise to be scared. Now leave us alone!
In case the audience wandered into a film called Devil with no clue what it might be about, the opening title card is a fairly unambiguous passage from the epistles of Saint Peter.
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.
In this little bit of scripture is all the setup necessary to follow the plot. But instead of leaving the audience to enjoy the slow build of supernatural terror, the director chooses to bombard the film with explanatory voiceover about the legendary cunning of the devil. It is not merely superfluous, but detrimental. Since the audience knows immediately that all spooky activity occurring in the next 80 minutes will be the devil’s work, the story’s mystery content is severely diminished.
Overall, the script is pretty clunky. The dialogue is on-the-nose, and the actors deliver their lines with the smug over-sincerity of people who know they’re in a movie. Just as the story beings to settle in, the morose police detective (Chris Messina) comes out with a gem like “When I think about the guy that killed my family, I have trouble believing in anything.” How much can even a decent actor do with lines like that? But remember it, for it may be important later.
All right. The voiceover is irritating and the dialogue isn’t great. For every false step in the opening sequence, there is a promising detail as well. Five strangers coincidentally enter the same elevator, and by their respective elevator etiquette the audience learns exactly how each of them will behave as the plot goes along. It’s a cleverly concise character introduction, and the only convincing moment of naturalism in the movie.
So up the characters go, after showing visible relief that none of them will be in the tiny space together for very long. Then the elevator jerks to a halt, and they are stuck for a while. Things begin happening, both inside and outside the elevator that suggest a malignant spiritual presence behind it all. This would have made a really good short story, and though it eventually wears thin on screen, the escalation of distrust and the creepy shocks peppered throughout play well and keep the story lively. As gruesome accidents befall first one and then others among them, alliances and enmities form arbitrarily. The actual presence of the devil is kept ambiguous and nearly invisible until very late in the game. That’s a cardinal rule of movie monsters, and the director follows it pretty carefully.
The cast is passable, but lacks any outstanding performers. The main problem is that they all seem like stock characters drawn out of a hat, from the streetwise security guard to the self-assured young professional woman to the braying jerk of a salesman that we can’t wait for something awful to happen to. The most egregious caricature is somebody outside the elevator – a Latino security guard (also our narrator) who abruptly becomes all jitters and superstition the minute he smells the devil’s work. It is he who insistently intrudes on a perfectly comprehensible plot to remind us that the devil is testing these people, each of whom is dragging around a conscience weighted with unconfessed crimes. It is amazing how a guy can be enjoying his morning coffee without a care in the world, and the instant he sees a quasi-ghostly image on a television screen… Ay, Santa Maria! A character of devout faith, who believes in higher powers when all others foolishly refuse to, is a logical and classic story choice, but his real function seems to be holding the audience by the hand and explaining every spooky thing that occurs even though we can see it pretty clearly for ourselves. Every casual mention of the devil in the script must be written in big bold capitals, like how Gandalf and the elves drop everything to pronounce “MOR-DORRR!” We get it! Knock it off already.
Maybe the characters are not supposed to be realistic. Perhaps it’s an allegory, a magical word meaning either a clever storytelling device or a cheap way to dodge criticism of one’s weak writing. Who am I to assume one or the other? It is worth adding that in trying to be taken seriously, the narrator character resorts to some rather ludicrous proof of the devil’s presence. If I had known that toast falling jelly side down meant you-know-who was around, I might have skipped breakfast before the matinee. I’m not making this up. Anyway, I know the devil doesn’t live in my attic. It’s far too crowded with beer-swilling Satanic rodeo clowns, and has been since I was six.
For structure and pace, the film gets some points back. One thing keeping the story interesting is that the victims inside the elevator and the cops outside, in trying to figure out what’s up with this freaky building, have access to totally different perspectives and information. The victims can talk among themselves and blame the devil’s work on one another. The authorities can speak to the victims and witness the gruesome things happening to them, but cannot hear what they say. In addition, the detectives gradually gather troubling information about each trapped party, and their diabolical guest, which might be useful knowledge inside the elevator. The tension really gets crackling in spots, usually right before the lights go out and something horrible scares everyone. Unfortunately, this formula gets repeated a few too many times. It’s a bad sign when one is reminded of the Monty Python sketch in which a series of detectives try to solve a closed-room murder, only to be killed themselves every time the lights blink out.
In the home stretch, the film begins to show hints of who’s holding the creative reins. Producer M. Night Shyamalan intends Devil to be the first in a series of films dealing with supernatural forces in the modern world. I am giving little to nothing away in saying that sooner or later, the suspicion arises that the devil might be physically present in one of the elevator’s occupants. I won’t say who, but I did guess it early, even though they tried to cheat. And Mister Shyamalan, I swear I was not going to, but you asked for it… WHAT A TWIST! Sadly, one lesson he has yet to learn is that the least plausible plot twist is not the same thing as the most surprising one.
If the big devil twist does not satisfy you, there is a further, Seven-style bonus twist, which mainly functions to validate the narrator’s fatalistic speeches about everything happening for a reason. However, it also opens the door for a surprisingly upbeat resolution. Despite its various problems, the film has good atmosphere and some really substantial scares, and ultimately it draws thoughtful conclusions about the power of repentance. That’s not a bad way to leave things.