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Four years may not seem a tremendous amount of time to you or I — unless you’re stuck in line at the DMV or something for that long — but it can be an eternity in Hollywood.

Think about it : if M. Night Shyamalan came to Universal Studios with a pitch to essentially franchise his name for a horror anthology series today, he’d get laughed out of the room. And while he had a pretty steady string of celluloid critical and commercial disasters under his belt already in 2010, when The Night Chronicles made its debut (and, to date, only) appearance with Devil, he was still considered to be at least something of a bankable commodity prior to the Ishtar-like debacle that was After Earth.

Yeah, okay, even by then it had been over a decade since The Sixth Sense took the movie-going public by storm — to the point where Time  magazine proclaimed, on its cover no less, Shyamalan to be “the next Spielberg” — but shit, that afterglow lasted a good long while.

These days, the bloom is definitely off the rose, and methinks the second installment of The Night Chronicles is probably never gonna happen.

Which is sort of a drag (but only sort of) because, for a modestly-budgeted PG-13 horror, Devil (which I’d been studiously avoiding for a long time but finally watched on a lark last night when I noticed it was streaming on Netflix) really isn’t all that bad.

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You’ll notice I didn’t say it was great or anything — because it’s most certainly not — but it was better than I’d been expecting for a flick that rests upon a belief in Satan/Beelzebub/Lucifer/whatever in order to be considered even remotely scary, and the idea of one great cosmic “good guy” and one great cosmic “bad guy” is something I put absolutely zero stock in. Shit, Hollywood would laugh at a script idea as lame as that, and yet one of the world’s major religions is founded on that very notion. But I guess I’ve gone “off the reservation” a bit (hey, it’s my blog, I get to do that once in awhile, don’t I?) with all this open mocking of Christianity (much as it richly deserves it), so let’s get back to the business at hand, shall we?

Maybe the reason Devil doesn’t actively suck all that much is because Shyamalan’s influence on it is minimal at best, only being credited with its “story” rather than its actual screenplay, and hogging a “producer” credit that probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, while the film itself is directed by my fellow Minnesota native (and, it should be pointed out, Catholic school graduate) John Erick Dowdle, who’s best known for his “found footage” efforts done in collaboration with his brother, Drew, like The Poughkeepsie TapesQuarantine, and the recently-released As Above, So Below. No Drew this time, and no shaky, hand-held cam antics, either. Maybe you can’t have one without the other, I dunno.

In any case, Devil plays is pretty straight, telling the tale of five strangers (played by Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, and Geoffrey Arend) trapped in a stalled-out elevator halfway up a downtown Philadelphia skyscraper who all have mysterious pasts, tenuous-at-best presents, and highly uncertain futures, and as their nerves start fraying, it’s up to troubled police detective Bowden (Chris Messina) to keep them all from killing each other from the safety of the building’s security HQ. He’s not doing a very good job of it, truth be told, given that they one-by-one start dropping like flies, but never fear, offensively stereotypical superstitious rent-a-cop Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) might have the answer as to what’s really going on : he doesn’t need no fancy book-learnin’, just his humble, good-hearted, Mexican, Catholic upbringing to know that one of the passengers is — you guessed it — the devil.

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I keep on bad-mouthing the inane religious underpinnings of this film, which are admittedly an easy target, but honestly, until we get blasted with a heavy dose of of the Roman catechism at the end, this is a fairly involving, at times even gripping, little movie. The character revelations come fast and furious without ever feeling terribly forced, the claustrophobic setting really works, the performances are, by and large, pretty solid,  and plenty of different, and entirely plausible, “whodunnit?” possibilities are laid out to keep us on our toes at all times. I even found myself not wanting at least one of the characters to die, and that’s a better batting average that plenty of other contemporary horrors are able to muster up. All in all, I was digging it — right up to the final act.

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I won’t dwell on that too much (okay, too much more), except to say that if you don’t buy into Catholic teachings on the existence of Satan and how he fucks with people just essentially out of boredom, it will leave you feeling pretty flat. And even if you do buy into Catholic teachings on the power of forgiveness,  the way it comes into play in the story, with a totally out-of-left-field (damn, what’s with the baseball analogies tonight?) crash-landing, will seem sudden and forced because — well, it just is.

Still, all that aside, I enjoyed the first 70 or so of Devil‘s brisk,  scant 80 minutes a lot more than I figured I would going in, and I’d give this one a qualified recommendation. It at least takes the time to build a reasonably solid foundation before hammering us over the head with  its dull message of religious conservatism, and  I kinda doubt that, for instance, the new Left Behind flick (or the old one, for that matter) bothers with doing that much, as it more than likely just starts pummeling its warped ideology into your head right from the outset.

Not that I’ve seen it — or intend to. But, yeah, I did finally watch Devil, after swearing it off ever since it came out, and I’m not nearly as pissed off any myself for doing so as I assumed I would be.

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