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September 18, 2010


(2010, Dir. by John Erick Dowdle.)

Devil is the kind of horror film that just makes me want to ramble about everything I love about this type of film.  Full of religious anecdotes and potential symbolism, it's a mystery that unravels one way on the screen and a different way in my mind.  With a sensational idea - five people in an elevator, one of whom is The Devil - from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan, I entered the film in the mindset of someone ready to watch a carnival sideshow instead of a film.  I even put aside my prejudice against producer Shyamalan, because I do admit to admiring the guy's belief in "campfire tales" where simple events happen for meaningful reasons. 

(And also because he wasn't listed as director.  I still can't get over The Happening.)

Directed by John Erick Dowdle (a hard-luck director whose previous horrors (Quarantine and The Poughkeepsie Tapes) faced plenty of demons in their cinematic lives), Devil is the most crisp story from Shyamalan in the last decade.  There are still some problems in the plot - some coincidences that bring characters to the story aren't dealt with and there's a flashback that reminds me of the heavy-handed ones in Signs - but the meat-and-potatoes of the story are dealt with wonderfully.  A huge amount of credit for selling the supernatural side of the tale goes to the character played by Traffic's Jacob Vargas, who narrates by dropping in his grandmother's tales about what might happen when the Devil appears on earth.  If Shyamalan is the carnival barker that lures us into a tent with grand proclamations (like the film's tagline, "Bad Things Happen for a Reason"), Vargas' character is the terrified "witness" who assures the viewer that there's truth to these claims.  I admit that I'm an easy mark, because I lap these seemingly irrational religious beliefs in horror right up.  Thus, I was immediately connected to Vargas' character - and the film's hook was in me.

That character, plus a jaded police detective and a few other innocent bystanders, are the in-film witnesses.  They observe the participants in the doomed elevator; five souls that are certainly not innocent.  One of the most enjoyable parts of trying to unravel Devil's mystery is finding out what lies each of these mostly nameless characters are selling, and trying to make sense out of their role in the story.  They're represented by a mostly no-name cast of actors, though you may recognize the young woman as Sylvia Ganush's granddaughter in Drag Me to Hell, the salesman as a stoner in Super Troopers, and the security guard as one of the Marines-turned-terrorists in (one of my absolute all-time favorite movies of ever) The Rock.  While these characters try to learn about each other, we also meet a lot of side characters who are determined to help end their predicament, many of whom meet their own grisly ends.  As our narrating believer states, Old Scratch can't let anyone get in his way.

As the initial dose of claustrophobia begins to wear off and the number of people left standing in the elevator drops, it becomes increasingly evident to the viewer that the payoff will make or break the film.  I will admit to becoming skeptical as the story neared conclusion - I worried that there might be a copout that breaks the story's promise - but the film stays true to the premise as it wraps up.  I can see some being disappointed with the final scenes, but I thought they fit the story told by Vargas' character perfectly.  As a religious parable that tells of pure evil at work and the way it effects people, I think Devil's results are comparable to some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Looking back at the film knowing the full story, I love the game that Devil plays with the viewer.  It may require a few leaps of faith, but there's a lot going on as it plays its tricks on the viewers and victims alike.  There are a lot of clues throughout the film (one particularly significant cue is a Shyamalan trademark) that really helped me make sense of the film.  The wrap-up of the plot will definitely miss for some, but I thought where it ended was exactly where a horror film of this type should end.

It's impossible to talk about most of the film without spoiling the twists, so there's not a lot more I can say about Devil.  (I'd love to ramble about the symbolism I picked up and what I think it meant - which was probably my favorite aspect of the film's design - but that's another story for after people have seen the film.)  I can say that this is entirely my kind of popcorn horror flick, and I won't be forgetting it soon.  If you step into Devil's trap and are open to what it has to offer, I think you'll probably get caught up in this tale.


Enbrethiliel said...


I just skimmed your review this time because I'm one of those no-spoilers people, but I'll definitely come back to read it more carefully after I've seen the movie!

The Mike said...

Probably safest, this was about the hardest review I've ever written regarding avoiding spoilers. I almost just wrote "I like it, go see it, then we'll talk."

Enbrethiliel said...


I did get to the part where you said that the narrative made this the type of movie where everything depends on the pay off (Do I still remember that correctly?). . . and then I thought, "I have to stop reading NOW!!!" LOL!

It will be out soon where I live, and then I'll know. =)

The Mike said...

Understand completely! I've had many a movie "spoiled" because I read a spoiler free review and made conclusions based on choice of words, etc. I try not to get too close to the details, but who am I to say what will create that moment of truth for some other reader?

(Also, great recall!) :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent review Mike. Can't wait to see this. I too was a little hesitant but giving the reigns to another director made me hopeful.

Still dying to see The Poughkeepsie Tapes.

The Mike said...

Thanks James, I hope you dig it. Seems to be pretty polarizing so far, but it worked for me in a similar manner to The Last Exorcism.

And I'm in the same boat on The Poughkeepsie Tapes. I want.

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

All the reviews I've read of Devil make me think I should've gone to see it rather than the hugely disappointing Resident Evil: Afterlife. Looks like another matinee by myself tomorrow!

MissSardonicus said...

I stand by Craig Ferguson's statement about this film: They should have called it Hellevator! Such a wasted opportunity.

I am HUGELY phobic of elevators but after reading your review I *might* suck it up and go see this.

Anonymous said...

High, my name is Petunia, and I love M. Night Shymalan films (*group response "Hi Petunia"*)
Ok, ok, ok...there, I said it. I have loved everyone of M. Nights films, some more than others. Yes, I loved The Happening, yes it took me seeing Lady in the Water at least twice to basically figure out what the heck was going on, and yes, I desperately want to go see Devil!!
There, are you all happy now??? My private shame lay bare before you all!!! I am a crumpled heap upon the floor, sobbing and clutching my DVD of Unbreakable (*they called him Mr. Glass, they called him Mr. Glass!!!!!)
I know what M. Night particularly significant trademark is( he's used it in practically every film, some films more than others)but thankyou for not giving too much away. But you have to excuse me now, it's time for my M. Night-ly bedtime rituals:first I melt down a copy of Signs and inject it directly into my blood stream, then I spend thirty minutes signing lullaby's to my ficus so it doesn't kill me in the night, then I rid all evidence of the 21st century from my home so my zomblings believe we live in 1776( I have to make sure the little darlings are up early in the morning for Avatar training you know) After that, it's workout time, but since I am the guardian, I only concentrate on my right arm which now puts Popeye to shame. Thankgoodness my dead psychotherapist is around so I can discuss my unhealthy obsession with with finding away to return to my family's country of origin so that my Western ideals can end in violence by those who hold to other beliefs. He's on the 15th floor which always means a nice quiet elevator ride.
Dreaded Dreams to all
And to all an M. Night!
Petunia Scareum

deadlydolls said...

Excellent review Mike! I'm still not sure that I'll ever see this one--it falls into that same limbo as The Box for me, mainstream studio horror with interesting premises but still not quite enough zest to climb too quickly up my queue. It's good to hear that you enjoyed it though. Hopefully more filmmakers will start to realize that they don't need to get their hands dirty with every aspect of filmmaking, something that I think is genuinely starting to kill Shamalayan (sic). Most directors don't have the discipline to look objectively at their own script, something that's become dangerously evident with his latest few films. Good for him to step back for a change.