M. Night Shyamalan indulges his messianic side with “Devil,” a quasi-religious supernatural thriller he has released under his The Night Chronicles production banner. It’s a tidy tale about the Devil picking off folks trapped in an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise while cops and security guards look on, in horror, through closed-circuit TV. “Devil” is the sort of story Rod Serling would have taken for a spin in “The Twilight Zone,” back in the day. Shyamalan came up with the idea, produced it and got others to script and direct this 76 minute exercise in movie minimalism.
Our superstitious narrator regales us with memories of “stories my mom used to tell,” tales about how “the Devil roams the Earth.” And a sure sign Satan is about to torment the doomed before they make it to Hell is a suicide. Thus, that jolt when somebody plunges through a top floor window clutching a Rosary sets us up for the elevator that won’t elevate.
Five are trapped — a rude and abrasive salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a looker (Bojana Novakovic), a sweaty security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a testy older woman (Jenny O’Hara) and a mysterious young man in a hoodie (Logan Marshall-Green). Even though they’re irked — not to worry, the head of security (Matt Craven) says over the PA system. They’ll be out before the panic attacks start.
But they aren’t, and the cop (Chris Messina of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) sent to investigate the suicide is on a new case, looking in on a body — somebody killed during one of the many moments when the lights blink out and the pounding sounds of a basketball in a dryer emerge from the closed compartment. That’s when we realize the narrator is the guy with the answers — a Catholic Latino security guard, Ramirez, who flirts with being a stereotype.
The performances don’t give us much. Everything’s entirely too calm for entirely too long. But only when Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) tries to explain the unexplainable by dropping his toast, jelly-side down, on the floor, does “Devil” live down to the hilarious promise that had audiences howling at the film’s trailer this past summer. As the pretentious words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” hit the screen, you could hear the hoots all the way into theater lobbies. It was so widespread that viral videos came out mocking the idea that the fellow whose films since “Signs” have annoyed and dismayed horror fans could still consider himself a “brand.”
But for all that, for all its preaching about guilt, redemption, punishment and salvation, “Devil” delivers its chills in a compact, efficient package of extreme close-ups, decently-timed surprises and the terror of dread–anticipation. It’s not great, but it’s not bad, and the fellow who foisted the “The Happening,” “Lady in the Water” and “The Last Airbender” on the faithful would take that praise any day. No doubt the mind of M. Night is troubled that he didn’t get a directing credit (John Erick Dowdle of the taut and tense “Quarantine” did) for a movie that at least doesn’t further devalue his brand.
Cast: Chris Messina, Bokeem Woodbine,Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green, Matt Craven
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes
Industry rating: PG-13 for violence and disturbing images, thematic material and some language including sexual references.