The opening shot of Devil is an unnerving upside-down flyover of Philadelphia that sets the film's chilly atmosphere. The breezy thriller, with a story by M. Night Shyamalan, at once combines the vastness of metropolis with the confines of a high-rise elevator in which five strangers become trapped. Inspired by a parable about the devil walking among sinners on earth to torment them, Devil is slick and surprisingly engaging despite more than a few genre clichés.
On the morning a man jumps to his death from an upper window, five strangers get stuck in a stalled elevator at the same building. As a lone handyman works on the problem, tensions quickly rise inside the elevator. When a passenger is assaulted, a detective (Chris Messina) wrapping up the suicide investigation at the site is called in to get things under control. Although the passengers are under constant closed-circuit surveillance, flickering lights and a faltering signal make it impossible to determine the identity of the attacker. One building supervisor (Jacob Vargas), who also serves as narrator, catches a demonic image in the feed and insists sinister forces are at work.
Devil is the first part in Shyamalan's Night Chronicles trilogy of supernatural horror movies. Saying it is his best work of 2010 is no high praise in light of the train wreck that is The Last Airbender, but Devil is refreshingly adept at blending otherworldly chills with human drama. The movie is filled with phantom shots of the skyline and building's interior that suggest the malevolence at work is much bigger than the elevator pawns. As the story unravels, the detective dissects the lives of the stranded quintet to find a common link, but no painfully obvious relationships exist.
Despite some tired genre staples like the religious supervisor and face-in-the-mirror jolts, Devil plays it pretty straight. We normally avoid eye contract in elevators, but the characters are forced to repress disinclination of confronting strangers to deal with something far more frightening. This character interaction rings true; there are no impromptu heartfelt speeches or random hook-ups. The strangers act as I would expect them to in reality, and their personalities, once flushed out, are undoubtedly human.
Stylishly shot and edited, Devil shares a sensibility about dread with Quarantine, director John Erick Dowdle's previous film. There are a fair number of predictable shocks, but Devil has a sneaky habit of cutting away from and denying obvious scares in order to raise the tension. The sound design is excellent, and, coupled with claustrophobia-inducing shots from around the building, gives the impression that something unpleasant is closing in. Devil is no great leap story-wise, but it articulates Shyamalan's gift for finding darkness within the mundane. Shyamalan may have trouble finding fluidity in the dialogue and narratives of his own films, but I look forward to his future involvement as ringmaster of the Night Chronicles. Devil clocks in at a scant 81 minutes but feels complete without belaboring the point. At worst, you might consider taking the stairs next time.
Devil is an attractively cold film, and Universal's 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a mostly solid presentation. A lot of detail and texture are present, especially in close-ups, though the presentation falters for fine detail in wide shots. A nice layer of grain remains, and I noticed no obvious signs of noise reduction. Blacks are frequently deep but not always delineated. There is a decent amount of black crush going on, resulting in the merger of shadows, clothing and physical features. I am not sure how much of this was the director's intent, but I am sure that the transfer is not completely to blame. The picture is occasionally impressive, and its flaws do not overshadow the proceedings.
The film's 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is flawless. Devil relies heavily on startling sound design, and the DVD does not forsake the acoustics. Dialogue is crisp and direct, and the film's horn-heavy score is deep and driving. The track shines when handling effects, which pop up to varying degrees in all channels throughout the film. The determined use of the surround speakers, along with a booming bass track, is no less than jolting. The soundtrack is one of the best I've heard on the format. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks, an English DVS track and English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles also are available.
Devil looks like it cost much more than its $10 million budget, and a behind-the-scenes documentary might have revealed some of the filmmakers' secrets. At first glance, the disc appears to offer this footage, but its features turn out to be brief and uninteresting. Three deleted scenes (3:58) introduce several of the characters and would have added little to the film. Next up are The Story (2:33), The Devil's Meeting (2:28) and The Night Chronicles (2:16). These are nothing more than brief promotional spots offering the barest insight into the film's genesis. Barely ten minutes of extras, and none of it is worth watching.
Perhaps the greatest on-screen adversary, the devil has toiled in cinema since its inception. Devil is not without its flaws, but it keeps the danger close and tension constant. Part supernatural shocker, part human drama, and all popcorn entertainment, Devil is better than most PG-13 thrillers. The lack of bonus features on Universal's DVD is disappointing, but the intense audio track more than makes up for it. Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.