He's gone from possible Spielberg to pariah in the span of a decade - quite an accomplishment for a previously unknown, untested filmmaker. But when you start out of the box as strongly as M. Night Shyamalan, (several Oscar noms for his breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, does help), it takes as lot to undermine your creative potential and reputation. Luckily, the man who was capable of reinventing the comic book movie (Unbreakable) and making alien invasions small and self-contained (Signs), used his amassing commercial clout to utterly destroy his relatively faithful fanbase. Between The Village, The Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, he's now a joke, a name synonymous with overblown ego and completely underdone entertainment. So you'd be right to be wary when seeing the man's name attached to anything, even as a mere producer. Luckily, M. Night had only the slightest input in the horror effort Devil. Though he did come up with the story and is acting as producer, that's as far as his aura of failure went. The rest is actually a pretty decent experiment in terror.
When five seemingly random people - a temp security guard named Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), an antagonizing old woman (Jenny O'Hara), Vince (Geoffrey Arend), a con man, Tony (Logan Marshall-Green), a former Marine, and a whiny wench named Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) - get trapped on an elevator, it seems like nothing more than your typical day in a big city high rise. But building guard Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) feels differently. With a recent suicide on the premises, he thinks the Devil is among the passengers, ready to condemn the souls of all onboard. When police officer with a troubled past Bowden (Chris Messina) shows up, he's merely looking to understand the situation and handle the crisis. When the trapped individuals start dying off one by one, the cop is not sure what or who to believe. As the connections between everyone are established, however, something supernatural is definitely afoot.
Devil isn't half-bad. Actually, it's pretty damn good. All those rumors and YouTube videos showing audience members laughing at M Night's credit during the trailer were for naught. Though it's way too pat narratively (a current Shyamalan problem/trait) and struggles to expand beyond its 80 minute maxi-Twilight Zone tenets, this is actually a pretty effective thriller. It's not particularly scary or overflowing with suspense, but as a combination of creative and genre choices, the results represent an above-average fright flick. With Quarantine director John Erick Dowdle behind the lens and Hardy Candy screenwriter Brian Nelson handling the script, there's barely any Shyamalan to screw things up. Granted, the way in which these supposedly diverse human puzzle pieces come together is straight out of the Lady in the Water book of contrived coincidences and having Ramirez basically explain everything away while he narrates the action is a misstep. But for the most part, the performances and the presentation turn what could have been a piece of crap into a credible scary movie experience.
Don't be mistaken - this really is a Tales from the Crypt type title, the "revelation a minute" mannerisms of the plotting setting us up for a big final reveal, and once the secrets start opening, we can see where things are going relatively quickly. Also, the confined space of the elevator may provide a nice bit of claustrophobic ambience, but then Devil cheats a bit by having the screen go black, various sounds and suggestive noises doing what the confined four walls can't. Also, the passengers seem painfully unaware of past "trapped" mythos. Sure, they try a few failed rescue maneuvers, but then decide that picking on (and picking off) each other is much more fun. Yet these are just some small stumbles in what is, ultimately, an inherently interesting movie. There is just something intriguing about watching a group of people caught in a similar circumstance, getting to know their personality (and psychological) quirks and then seeing where the storyline takes them. Shyamalan's world may be manufactured, but the final machine still functions well.
The acting, for the most part, is uniformly good. No one goes overboard during their obvious red herring moments (the narrative comes down to figuring out who is the Devil, after all) and we do see the simmering paranoia percolating behind their otherwise frightening eyes. Messina is very good as the policeman with a whole desktop full of problems, and his arc is perhaps the most satisfying. On the other hand, Vargas' cross and crucifix routine is almost borderline racist. His ethnicity should have little to do with his ability to sense the presence of Satan. In between, Dowdle shows a real knack for using angles and composition to amplify the angst, and the lean, mean make-up of the story promises you'll never be bored. Yes, there are things here that will rub you the wrong way, far too convenient elements and irritating characters that add up to a small smattering of Shyamalan silliness. Still, if Devil is any indication of where his proposed "Night Chronicles" film series will eventually go, things are looking good - and when was the last time you hear anyone say that in association with this particular filmmaker?
Though some sites have faulted Universal's treatment of this title, this critic found the 1080p/VC-1 transfer to be uniformly decent. It's not reference quality, mind you, but there is a nice control of colors, a rich use of rainy metropolitan atmosphere, and a nice balance between blacks and the rest of the spectrum. Yes, there are a few scenes where the CG fakery shows through, and several of the exterior shots seem over-processed. Similarly, there is often a lack of detail (as when the maintenance man explores the basement and the elevator shaft) that we don't expect from the format. While one might expect more from Blu-ray and a modern 2.40:1 image, the transfer is passable, if a bit problematic.
Directional, dynamic, and driven by the dialogue, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix does a masterful job of putting us right inside the elevator with the actors and experiencing the ambient horror they are dealing with. This is especially true during the blackout sequences where sound and spatial atmosphere are all we (and the speakers) have to work with. The use of the back channels is wonderful, providing an unsettling feeling of terrors just outside the periphery. Overall, the aural aspect of the release is really strong. It helps sell the sometimes struggling situations here.
It's hard to call seven minutes of EPK-lite featurettes and three deleted scenes added content, but Universal gives it a try. The fluff pieces, focusing on M Night and his movie/motives are engaging, if slight. The edited sequences are all character intro beats and wholly unnecessary. That's it. No trailers. No commentary track. No real bonus substance - and that's a shame. Devil could use a little help in the packaging/presentation department, especially on the expanded HD format.
Devil was never meant to reinvent the horror genre. It's not set up to start a new trend in terror or explore new avenues of eerie. Instead, someone saw a chance to tap into M Night Shyamalan's once viable commercial cache and then made sure he had little or nothing to do with the final product. Putting everything in the hands of Brian Nelson and John Erick Dowdle was the production's best choice - a decision that really delivers on several levels. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is a decent little fright flick that will surprise you on many levels. It's amazing how much the filmmakers could do with such a simple setting. It's shocking how good the acting often is. It's astonishing how involved we become with this tale. And most importantly, in 2010, it's stunning that anything associated with M Night Shyamalan could actually be considered good. Devil is indeed good. It's actually very good, come to think of it.