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Non-Review Review: Devil

Devil actually has a pretty interesting B-movie premise, evoking the sort of cheesy thrill of an eighties horror. Six strangers are trapped inside an elevator… and one of them might be Satan. It’s a fairly straight-forward idea, albeit one that the script and direction needlessly complicate and convolute as they attempt to fill up the seventy-seven minutes. In many ways, Devil feels like something of a classic horror throwback, a simple high concept that relies on occasionally overstated jump scares rather than gratuitous gore or carnage. It’s not necessarily the best representation of the genre, but – if you can suspend your disbelief and live with the overwrought corniness – it’s an affectionate old-fashioned homage.

And things were just looking up…

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” a detective comments as he tries to manage the situation inside and outside of the elevator carriage. Don’t think about it too much, or you’ll be liable to agree with. M. Night Shyamalan stuck his name of the film to sell it as part of his “Night Chronicles” series, a series of supernatural horror stories unfolding within an urban setting. In this case, as the annoyingly earnest narration keeps reminding us, the folk story is “the Devil’s meeting” – the story of how Satan would torment lost souls on Earth before stealing them away to an afterlife.

And here the story reaches perhaps its biggest issue. After all, “Satan did it” offers a nice internal resolution to any perceived plot holes in the film, instantly explaining any number of physical or logical impossibilities. However, the film never quite explains whySatan is doing this. It’s suggested that Satan wants the world to watch what is happening to these six people – after all, the events have an audience via a live video feed it would be easy enough to cut. The problem arises when one wonders what Satan gains from all this.

“There’s something in the lift!”

Surely, after all, a demonstration the Satan actually existed would drive more people to religion and redemption. After all, the belief in God instills humanist values through fear – if people knew that Satan and Hell existed, that fear would surely drive more to repent? Surely Satan would benefit more from people living their lives not knowing, and thus less likely to see redemption or absolution to avoid an afterlife filled with pain and suffering? Besides, if Satan really wanted an audience, there must be a larger and more public forum.

Of course, “Satan did it”is arguably also the perfect response to any characterisation problems with the villain of the piece. If you can suspend your disbelief, it makes for an interesting premise for a thriller. Six people in a lift. How long before they start killing one another? Less time than you think, apparently. While the execution itself isn’t necessarily impressive, the premise is enough to lend the film a certain limited pulpy charm.

They need to screen their repair jobs better…

It doesn’t help that the script does its best to undermine the promise. The incredibly annoyingly over-the-top narration from the religious security guard would be less irritating if it wasn’t conspicuously setting up plot points and instead actually relating a parable. We’re told that these things always begin with “a suicide, paving the way for the Devil’s arrival.” It seems like a conspicuous attempt to justify a decision to have something dramatic happen within the first five minutes.The character himself would be less irritating if he seemed a bit more interested in the lives affected by the situation than his own religious beliefs.

The dialogue is a bit of a mess. Characters talk to one another in a way that people don’t really talk to other people. In an early piece of workplace banter, one technician responds to a snide remark about his eyesight. He comments, “You know what, I’ll ask your mom to read it for me next time I got her bent over the console.” The engineer retorts, “My mom’s 78, have at it.” It’s that sort of weird quasi-offensive-but-not-really-blue language that Hollywood does when trying to produce a naturalistic tone without being able to use swear words or other more realistic language.

A stab in the dark…

That said, there are elements of the film I do like. I like how vague and generic the movie is in dealing with the characters. The driver licenses of the characters are all pixellated when they attempt to show them to the cops, and – although we do find out most of their names – the movie generally treats the six as archetypes. There’s the “Salesman”, the “Security Guard”, the “Old Woman”and the “Mechanic.” It seems at least honest for the movie to concept that it’s not developing the characters any more than it needs to.

The film also, to be fair, makes sure to keep the plot twists coming. Even if they tend to come from out of left-field and seem to exist merely to keep the premise going, there’s never a dull moment of Devil. It’s almost as if the script is afraid that the movie will collapse under its own weight if it sits still too long. None of these twists are exceptionally clever or sophisticated on their own terms, but they work well in keeping the movie constantly moving forward.

Getting the shaft…

Chris Messina and Logan Marshall-Green also give much better performances than the movie really deserves. They anchor the action both inside and outside the lift, and they help guide the movie through any number of the strange and almost surreal plot twists. Both actors acquit themselves very well, despite the admittedly hokey nature of the script and the direction, making the movie ultimately more interesting than it really ought to be. Messina in particular does an exceptional job playing a character who is pretty much a walking cliché, a police officer investigating this case who just happens to have lost his faith.

There are moments when we get a glimpse of the better, smarter movie Devil could have been. There’s a nice instant when the technicians realise that they’ve left the elevator muzak playing. “The music’s still on?” one asks. “Well, turn it off, it’s probably driving them nuts.” There’s a tense stand-off with the remaining characters keeping their hands in sight. There’s an attempt to stave off the darkness using mobile phones. They work well here, but they feel like they belong in a better, stronger and more consistent movie.

Hey, tech it out!

Devil is decent enough, but it really should be better. However, for what it is, it’s entertaining taken on its own terms, and with a healthy tolerance for cheesy. And bad dialogue.

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