CHLOE MASHITER: ‘ultimately the only thing unholy about Devil is the transformation of a brilliant concept into a dull, uninspired and scare-free film.’
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Despite plastering his name all over the publicity for this film, Shyamalan appears to be taking a back seat in Devil, merely co-producing and supplying the original story. But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security – as evidenced in this modern-day horror flick, Shyamalan is like a twitchy Jenga player: with just one move he can cause everything to fall apart.
The film’s wonderfully simple premise is like a demonic Breakfast Club: a thief, a blackmailer, a murderer, a thug and a fraud are forced together and we witness the fallout – however, since one of the above is no other than the King of Darkness, they’re in for a little more than bickering and life lessons. Their escalating torment is intercut with the story of a police officer’s desperate attempt to minimise the body count as he watches the gruesome events unfold on CCTV – essentially, a superfluous subplot with all the dramatic tension of Total Wipeout.
It begins promisingly enough, with a disorientating title sequence and some claustrophobic first-person camerawork inside the lift where our ill-fated fivesome are trapped. Their inevitable conflict fuelled by rising suspicion and fear is morbidly fascinating to watch, and a mangled repairman’s blood slowly leaking into the overhead lighting is a neat reminder of the encroaching danger. Yet as soon as this satanic set-up has us by the throat, unwelcome interruptions from our stereotypically embittered cop dash any hope of sustained horror.
The imprisoned individuals’ reactions of the Devil – or rather lack of – are also a disappointment. Despite some of the killings being beyond even the most skilled murderer’s capabilities, those trapped never openly entertain the thought that something satanic (or even just supernatural) is occurring, meaning their fear never rockets as high as it should. When people should be as terrified as an arachnophobe surrounded by a legion of tarantulas, they’re merely mildly shaken, resulting in the audience with the impression that we needn’t be scared either.
However, it’s the frankly pathetic ending which robs the film of any lasting scares. Throughout the film the makers attempt to shoehorn in various moral platitudes, concluding with the sentiment that Satan can be defeated by a heart-felt apology. Even though various characters emphatically flagged as innocents are killed, sinners can dodge the Devil by saying sorry in an underwhelming ‘climax’.
There is, lastly, the elephant in the room to deal with: Shyamalan’s customary twist – or, should I say, Agatha Christie’s. Yes, the filmmaker felt that audience expectations would be best subverted by stealing the twist from the world’s best-ever-selling mystery novel, And Then There Were None, an act falling firmly on the wrong side of the brave-stupid divide.
Though aspiring to be an intelligent and restrained horror, ultimately the only thing unholy about Devil is the transformation of a brilliant concept into a dull, uninspired and scare-free film.