An abiding love of lore compels horror fans to wade through countless bad and mediocre movies looking for something that gets it right. Folklore is in my blood — a taste that’s somehow been enhanced, rather than eradicated, by my extreme skepticism. It’s axiomatic: those who love both folklore and film can’t help being drawn to horror movies however so often they fail to entertain or even interest us. And of all the horror subgenres, the occult subgenre fascinates me most of all because it invests a great deal in tonal affairs while purveying mythic exegesis. For some of us, atmosphere is everything; if it doesn’t brood, it’s crude. This bias of mine is what permits me to look back on M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, with something like gratitude — it marked Hollywood’s return to mood-drenched horror pieces after long years of over-shiny horror-comedy projects like Scream that lacked the brood and the mood and the subterranean fissures. Earnestness has been undervalued in recent years, in part because it’s so damned hard to pull off. Shyamalan’s own body of work proves this adage; from Signs on down, his films have failed to convince a growing number of viewers to follow his earnest train. A decade after The Sixth Sense revived the eerie brood piece, its director’s name inspires what’s come to be known as the Shyamalan Groan (the sound of communal derision we hear in movie theaters whenever his name appears onscreen). That Shyamalan produced and co-wrote Devil is enough to generate cynicism, but the curious horror fan soldiers forth despite it all, determined to investigate all comers.
Devil, as many readers know by now, is the alleged first installment in a series of Shyamalan-produced fright flicks that fall under the modest rubric of The Night Chronicles. There’s a certain self-awareness evident in the series’ name; given Shyamalan’s attempt to revivify the half-earnest, half-ironic remains of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, we ought to recognize that anything attached to The Night Chronicles will share the same hybridity, moniker included. And Devil really does straddle that tenuous filigree, labouring to produce hefty cubic meters of atmosphere while winking at its ancestors (at least during the film’s climactic scene). Though Devil was directed by John Erick Dowdle, Shyamalan’s stamp is all over it thanks to the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (who lensed several Shyamalan films and steadies John “Quarantine” Dowdle’s spastic hand) and the city of Philadelphia made routinely eerie. The movie possesses everything that Shyamalan does well: cityscapes with hard yet somehow soggy lines and a sense of quotidian yet somehow uncanny bustle; appealing low-angle shots of do-gooder heroes; a slow build founded on an introductory shock. Devil is so Shyamalan, in other words — visually and narratively — that Dowdle appears to be no more than a puppet-director. If I had to place a bet, I’d wager that only one of these men gets to see his vision onscreen in the final product.
As many readers also know, the film rests on a simple premise: five strangers trapped in an elevator, one of whom may be the Devil himself. This is more than a nod to Twilight Zone storytelling or a leveraging of the effective close-confines thriller; for all of its occult posturing, Devil (like Twelve Angry Men, Cube, and dozens of other close-confiners) is a murder mystery at bottom. It’s the generic Agatha-Christie parlor gathering of all suspects and a detective, after all, that originated the close-confines structure in suspense narratives — if the murderer isn’t among those collected into a closed-off space, he or she still manages to steer all dialogue, emotion and events. We aren’t sure, at first, if the Devil is one of the five hapless people trapped 20 floors up an elevator shaft or an outside force messing with them whenever the lights blink out (imagine being stuck in a closet with a malicious poltergeist, and you’ll have a sense of what these victims endure). Regardless, the five strangers are — by design — their own worst enemies, nagging or taunting or disdaining one another as the minutes click by and their tension morphs from anxiety to terror. Casting a group of relative unknowns was a smart choice on the part of the filmmakers (budgetary restrictions aside), as it injects some needed believability into the thin characterizations we’re supposed to care about; their unfamiliar faces make them seem more everyday, therefore more real, therefore more fully drawn, but it’s an illusion. Bokeem Woodbine’s claustrophobic security guard, Bojana Novakovic’s con artist, and Jenny O’Hara’s klepto retiree are exhausted types, while Logan Marshall-Green’s everyman laborer washes out completely and Geoffrey Arend’s Herb Tarlek-ing is oversold. When they start dying off, Ten Little Indians-style, we feel no loss.
The only real character — in the loosest sense of the word — is the atmosphere, forged by damp skies, tight spaces, creepy sounds, and melancholy firemen. Without the lore, there’d be nothing to grasp onto — fortunately, lore frames the story in the voice-over narrative of Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), a superstitious security guard who frets about suicides opening doorways for Satan (as a suicide happens to fall from his downtown Philadelphia business tower). And if we rely on the folklore for character, we rely equally on the film’s murder-mystery foundation to provide what little tension Devil offers. I never goosepimpled during the film’s 80-minute runtime, but I got some enjoyment out of what Dowdle and Shyamalan were doing with an old mystery trope, at least. There isn’t much else to be said about Devil, which is strung on pallid coincidence — the kind that involves a (wait for it) car crash. Characters do meaningless things in the interest of red herrings — the mark of poor or hurried writing — and they take a distant backseat to the ostensible frights. But the performances are solid enough, and the photography is fine, and the blacked-out screen (which recurs in a merciless attempt to stoke our own latent claustrophobia) is the best use of a dark theater since the Bride found herself buried alive in a coffin. All in all, Devil does it better than a lot of Twilight Zone retreads — if that counts for anything. Taken as a horror film, Devil strains to satisfy. But taken as a nod to mid-century televised schlock, Dowdle gets the job done in brisk Shyamalan fashion — where surprises don’t ever surprise us, but where the atmosphere, at least, is good and pungent. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online, on October 5, 2010.)