January 3, 2011

Poor M. Night Shyamalan. After the one-two-three punch that was The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, the young auteur, once branded the “next Spielberg” by Time Magazine, has endured a painfully long streak of bad-to-terrible films – namely The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender. With the release of Devil he now must face a hard truth – that his best film in years is the one he did not write or direct.

Those duties belong to John Erick Dowdle, the imaginative brain behind 2008’s contrived, but freakishly thrilling Quarantine. Dowdle swoops in and, with the help of screenwriter Brian Nelson – who penned the delicious vampire fest 30 Days of Night and the equally tasty Hard Candy – molds Shyamalan’s basic premise into a 75-minute thriller that never lets up. The swift running time ensures a slick experience – like an extended Twilight Zone episode, Devil cuts through the BS and arrives at its purpose directly. You don’t have time to laugh at the proceedings – you’re too busy racing the film to its dramatic conclusion.

The Agatha Christy-with-a-heavy-dose-of-supernatural story concerns five individuals – Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jenny O’Hara and Logan Marshall-Green – who become trapped in an elevator one stormy afternoon. One of them is a killer – maybe even the Devil. One by one each is grotesquely executed – but to what end? That is the question a weary Detective (Chris Messina) must unlock before it is too late.

Devil succeeds because it refuses to take itself too seriously. Sure the actors play it straight and everything from the FX to the production design look exquisite, but there’s a lingering sense that everyone involved knew they were making little more than something akin to a big-screen adaptation of an R.L. Stein novel.

Of course there’s a twist, there’s always a twist – a silly trademark Shyamalan stubbornly refuses to nix – but Devil pushes towards the big reveal as though uncertain of its own nifty destiny. As such, the conclusion arrives triumphantly, nimbly avoiding the asinine finales that marred Shyamalan’s The Village (and even Signs for that matter).

The acting is actually pretty good. Messina in particular handles his role with aplomb, believably channeling a detective with little, if any, belief in the supernatural, placed in a helpless position that forces him to change such convictions. The chaps in the elevator don’t offer much in the way of characterization (how can they?), but offer enough intrigue to keep you hooked – you like them, and fear them all at once. One of them has to be a killer – right?


I liked the slow build towards chaos. Things start out simple enough – a routine suicide draws Messina’s detective to the creepy skyline (its address is 333) at the exact moment the elevator breaks down. The passengers patiently wait the situation out, and then slowly begin to unravel. One of them gets scratched, or clawed; an evil face appears for a brief moment on the security camera; people begin dying; panic ensues.

Through it all Fernando Velazquez’s pounding, Bernard Herman-esque score amps up the tension, driving home Devil’s simple premise with blasts of tuba, and driving cellos. It’s actually quite brilliant. So much so that afterwards I jumped online to purchase a copy of the soundtrack, and was shocked to discover that one didn’t exist. Talk about getting cheated by the Devil.

I reviewed Devil on DVD, but I’ve seen the Blu-ray and, obviously, the 1080p format is the way to go. Tak Fujimoto’s terrific cinematography really comes alive on the Blu-ray format, with bold colors contrasting sharply against heavy darks. On DVD, as you probably know, the image is not as crisp, but still vivid enough to enjoy – I was actually quite surprised at the DVD transfer to tell you the truth. Both discs offer the typical featurettes – the kind where everyone talks about how great and unique the film is – and a few deleted scenes, but little more.

Maybe I’m just biased. I’m still a fan of all things Shyamalan. His quality of works has dropped considerably, but you can never fault him for not trying different things. If anything Devil teaches us that the man has some great ideas, but needs a little help in executing them.

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