*. I really shouldn’t be impressed by something as simple (and kind of stupid) as the upside-down shots of Philly in the opening credit sequence, but for some reason they really got me in the mood. For what, I wasn’t sure. But I felt primed.
*. What then follows is a very slick and effective production of a very stupid idea.
*. The basic premise is the locked-room thriller, with a group of people trapped in a confined space and being eliminated one-by-one. It’s very close to the Game of Death sub-genre (we even have a security camera watching the proceedings), but there’s no sense that this is a contest.
*. Given the premise I thought it was very well handled. The one cheat I didn’t appreciate was the simple expedient of turning the lights off every time someone gets killed, and then turning them back on to reveal the body. That’s the same trick they use in the Game of Death film Breathing Room, where they at least had the excuse of having no budget to work with. Here it had me swearing out loud at the screen.
*. But then there’s the stupid twist, which is the supernatural angle. In most of these films the locked-room has either (a) been engineered by a sadistic psychopath (Saw, Kill Theory, Would You Rather) or (b) been set in some vague SF-style future where the elimination game is a way of packaging punishment or entertainment (Cube, Breathing Room, House of 9, Circle). Here, however, it’s all the work of the devil.
*. This won’t come as any surprise, given the film’s title. But it’s still pretty stupid. The most basic question, which has plagued devil movies at least since The Exorcist, is why such a powerful entity as the devil (or a devil) would bother him- or herself with such a petty scheme.
*. As with many of these movies the trapped people all turn out to be guilty of something. This is the No Exit theme. But a blackmailer? A former gangster (who at least seems to be trying to turn his life around)? Some jerk who once operated a Ponzi scheme? Why would the devil be interested in this bunch of losers stuck in a lift?
*. Wouldn’t there be an easier way for the devil to go about harvesting souls? Perhaps something a little more private? Apparently the devil likes an audience. This is news to me, since in all of human history we haven’t been able to find any proof of his existence, at least of the kind captured on security cameras here. But such lore comes to us from a reliable source because, yes, once again we have the cliché of the ethnic character — in this case the security guard Ramirez — who is still connected (via the stories his mother told him) with some kind of folk spiritual wisdom that the advanced, white, professional types have all lost touch with.
*. All of this leads up to a really hokey ending, carrying a message of (Christian) forgiveness and a line about how “if the devil is real, then God must be real too.” Does that make you feel better?
*. Devil was conceived as the first instalment in what was billed as The Night Chronicles trilogy, a trio of films to be produced by M. Night Shyamalan that were each to have supernatural storylines. Which is fine. I have nothing against the supernatural. I just don’t like to see it presented in such a trite way.
*. Things end on an odd note. All the main characters are given first and last names in the film, but none of them are identified by name in the credits. Instead, “Ben Larson” is just Guard, “Sarah Caraway” is Young Woman, “Jane Kowski” is Old Woman, “Vince McCormick” is Salesman, etc. I wonder if the thinking was that nobody in the audience would identify any of these people as characters but only as types. If so, that may say as much about how little they believed in the story they were telling as it does about their estimation of their audience. In either case I found it fitting, as I cared less and less about the characters as things went on and was fine with seeing them dismissed not to hell but into anonymity.