The set up is simple. Five strangers are trapped in an elevator. One of them, we are told via a goofy narration, is the devil. They begin dying. Meanwhile, a troubled cop is trying to get them out of the elevator and to save whoever can still be saved, even as they get mysteriously knocked off one at a time. There’s a twisty ending - sort of - but it’s not some head-snapper of a twist. What Devil is most like is a classic episode of The Twilight Zone - weird, semi-supernatural (until it goes full-blown supernatural) and really a heavy duty morality tale. But like the best work that Rod Serling did, the morality tale isn’t a simple ‘Be good’ message; there’s an interesting examination of the nature of guilt and evil and forgiveness that will actually get the God crowd cheering (the real God crowd that is - the people who follow the teachings of Christ. Not the hateful, racist, homophobic Tea Party types who make up the Christian right in America today).
Director John Erick Dowd does some fairly incredible work inside the elevator, where about 70% of the film takes place. In the beginning he really emphasizes the tightness of the space with disturbing close-ups; as the bodies hit the floor he opens up the space, making the elevator almost impossibly big. Most of all he keeps that cramped space visually interesting, playing with the lighting and setting up the camera in different ways to make what should be a boring, routine setting contain subtle and restrained menace.
Devil is a fairly minor film - none of the performances soar, although many are more than serviceable, and the movie is filled with ‘That Guys’ (That Guy is from Undeclared! That Girl was in Drag Me To Hell! That Guy is Bokeem Woodbine!) - but it’s solid. I’ve found myself thinking about solid films, about the fact that the movie spectrum includes more than just SUCKS and ROCKS, and Devil is a film that truly falls into the middle ground. It’s generally well-crafted, and its goals are small. Not every film has to have ambitions on a hundred million dollar scale, and sometimes a smaller movie that tells a crackerjack story is all you need. For some people the high cost of moviegoing means everything has to be a blockbuster or a game changer to be worth their 12 bucks; Devil is neither, but it’s a really good little movie that does everything it sets out to do. It’s got good jump scares, it’s got excellent tension, and it’s got a central storyline that will keep you guessing right up to the last minutes.
Some people have criticized Devil as feeling like the pilot of an anthology series called The Night Chronicles... but it sort of is, so what’s the complaint? I’d be happy to see two or three films like this a year; small, intriguing, generally smart tales of fear and suspense. Maybe M. Night Shyamalan has blown it as a writer and director, but as the guiding force behind a low budget series of chillers, I think he’s got it going on. I understand why people laughed at the Devil trailer when Night’s name came on the screen, but I hope that doesn’t keep them from seeing a highly effective little film.
As for what kind of a movie I would have made with that same premise… well, semi-spoilers ahead: I think a very great version of Devil could have been much less supernatural and much more about the nature of five people trapped in an enclosed space with a sense of mortal danger hovering over them. The real devil, I think, would do less murder by twisting people’s heads around and more letting the evils in the assembled hearts get out of hand. But that isn’t the movie that was made here, and as a more overtly supernatural take on that premise, I think Devil works.