The opening of Devil offers a lasting impression. As the acting and director credits begin to roll, still waters appear as the camera slowly pans upward to show an entire city turned upside down. Skyscrapers and landmarks jut out from the sky as a narrator awkwardly relays a story about how the Devil does mischief about the earth. That topsy-turvy opening is a foreshadowing of a lopsided film.
This horror comes with an obstacle that must be discussed- M. Night Shyamalan. His presence in advertising was conspicuous and detrimental to reactions to the trailer. Around the country people laughed and jeered at the sight of his involvement in conceiving Devil, something the studios would have you forget.
Many in the audience won’t. Because the film was attached to Shyamalan I found myself constantly looking to the background of any scene for a twist. His storytelling has become so synonymous with the gimmick that it’s distracting to the enjoyment of his films, even those he doesn’t direct. To his credit Devil is far more clever a concept than the marketing suggests.
To give any true summary would spoil the film, but suffice it to say the message of the film and its ultimate conclusion requires more intellectual activity than the average scary picture. Offsetting that unfortunately is a slow pace and poor chemistry among the five strangers. The film does not even attempt to inspire fear, nor does it contain the creepiness any viewer will expect.
It takes thirty minutes for the action to get started, and to my chagrin absolutely no gore or violence is ever shown onscreen -- not one little bit. Viewers have to assume all of the killings, a flaw last seen in Shyamalan’s The Happening. If the intention is to open the film to a wider audience, brand it a thriller at the outset. To call it horror is a travesty.
Devil does have something heavenly going for it in the form of Bokeem Woodbine, one of the five entrapped. He is the only member of the cast who bothered to give a strong performance and create the needed tension in the elevator. Given the majority of the movie takes place in a single location chemistry between characters is an absolutely essential – and regrettably missing -- ingredient.
Poor casting made the entire effort appear cheap; the dialogue and message lost their depth as a consequence. The narration was a further distraction. A more creative writer may have found a way to incorporate the voiced-over aspects in a more subtle way. The actual character who does the talking plays his part well, but his understanding of the events is portrayed as omniscient; a confusing yet necessary gaff.
The high point of the film is the story, but the movie contains far too many flaws to overlook. As Americans become more secular, religious allegory in cinema seems is becoming more popular. Films like Devil, The Last Exorcism, and the rumored Paradise Lost have a visceral intrigue that draws movie fans on a consistent basis. Not all are created equal however, and Devil finds itself a cut above average.
It is not the epic fail many expect it to be, nor is it the surprise masterpiece I hoped for. In the hands of another writer, editor, and cast this film could have realized more depth. As it stands it is a hodgepodge of relative strengths and amateur weaknesses.
Directed by Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle
Written by Brian Nelson and M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Chris Messina, Caroline Dhavernas, Bokeem Woodbine