Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Those who are so inclined will find elevators, a modern convenience, conveyance and claustrophobic confinement, albeit typically short-lived, uncomfortable enough.
Several horror films have tapped on the latent unease with this modern contraption and used elevators as a setting for hauntings, especially unsuspecting ones – the classic scene has a hapless victim stepping in without noticing the apparition behind – and places of demise.
‘From the mind of’ horror-tease M. Night Shyamalan, as the trailer proclaims, comes this film set at a Philadelphia office building, with the primary events of chilling interest taking place within – and in the vicinity of – a bedevilled elevator.
Five strangers are trapped in a lift. Mild discomfort, irritation and dislike turn into suspicion, desperation and fear. Then, a body count is started and the survivors turn on one another.
The stalled lift, we are told by way of a religious Latino security guard, isn’t the result of a mere technical fault; instead, it is the manifestation of an apparent folklore known as the Devil’s Meeting, whereby the devil incarnate, hidden amongst a group of sinners, torments each member before claiming their damned souls.
Such is the intriguing premise of Devil, the first of a three-part film franchise fronted by the director of The Sixth Sense, whose reputation has taken a battering in the wake of flops such as Lady in the Water, The Happening and, most recently, The Last Airbender.
It is no wonder, then, that while the film was directed by brothers Drew and John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine), it has the definite feel of an M. Night picture – after all, he came up with the original story, which allows for a great deal of tension to be built up while the characters grapple with the improbability and terror of their predicament.
As the first instalment of the so-called Night Chronicles, this film bears many of the hallmarks of its namesake director.
The main character, a police detective named Bowden played by Chris Messina – arguably the only ‘name’ actor of this largely undistinguished cast – resembles the Mel Gibson character in Signs. They share a similar trauma. Bowden’s trauma, however, is instrumental in the resolution in this story.
There are also recurrent Night motifs such as people jumping from great heights (The Happening) and the reliance of a character to recount the ‘rules’ of the dilemma (Unbreakable, Signs, Lady in the Water).
When the spooked Latino guard in this film, an out-and-out horror film without any pretensions of being anything else, explains the conditions of the Devil’s Meeting, and why death is enveloping the building during the course of this fateful day, it is laughable.
I defy anyone of reasonable disposition not to find his explanation, done with the visual aid of jam-covered toast, incredulous and preposterous. I was reminded, though not convinced, that this scene could have been done for deliberate comic effect.
Yet, I applaud the film for being largely successful in ratcheting up the tension and peeling away to reach its somewhat insubstantial conclusion. Much of the violence and horror is not seen; the film uses blackouts and strategic cut-aways to let your mind’s eye imagine what happened.
One criticism, however, is that the nature of this film, with its stated premise, dilutes the impact of rational explanations surrounding each character’s less-than-stellar background. These red herrings, to mix metaphors, hold no water.
While the payoff isn’t a ‘twist’ ending per se, it is neat although not wholly satisfying. Then again, wholly satisfying endings to horror tales – I’m thinking Carrie, The Shining and, well, The Sixth Sense – are hard to come by.
About Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.