Sunday, September 19, 2010

Review: Devil (2010)

80 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Devil is a deliciously old-fashioned throwback of a horror film. It is a myth, a ghost story told around a campfire, and a deliciously entertaining piece of pop entertainment. It is overly moralistic and quite heavy-handed in spots, but it succeeds in its very limited ambitions. It will not gross you out or send you to bed deeply disturbed. But it will make you jump out of your seat, nervously giggle to yourself, and send you out of the theater with a big goofy grin on your face. It's not high art, but it's quite a bit of fun.

A token amount of plot: Five random strangers find themselves stuck in an elevator in the middle of a large office building. But this is no ordinary elevator failure, and the five strangers may just be there for a reason. Meanwhile, an emotionally wounded cop is sent to investigate a suicide in the same building, and he soon finds himself in the middle of a second investigation as violence strikes the five trapped passengers. Just why have these five people been brought together? What is seemingly trying to do them harm? Is one of them a murderer, or is there a possibly spiritual answer to the mayhem?

The film is based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, but the screenplay comes from Brian Nelson (Hard Candy) and it's directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine). As such, the film feels like a meld of all three talents, as you get agnostic theology and predestination from Shyamalan, hard-nosed dialogue of people crumbling under stress from Nelson, and strong direction for unknown character actors by Dowdle (like Quarantine, this is a solid portrayal of normal people caught up in unthinkable circumstances). The less-is-more edict also feels like a return to Shyamalan's roots, as a single ghostly face on a security camera elicits chills in a manner similar random specks of blood in Unbreakable or a single blurry alien being caught on tape at a child's birthday party in Signs.

While Devil eventually dives into schmaltz right at the finish line, it works as a bruised-forearm picture almost right up to the end. I could have done without yet another unnecessary voice over, which not only spells out the themes, but actually operates as a spoiler for the movie itself. But it's somewhat forgivable as it solidifies the film as a read-it-aloud-at-bedtime ghost story that it's striving to be. But the film is well-acted by a generally unknown cast (I recognized only Matt Craven), and it succeeds in being a goofy bit of scary amusement. In terms of pure entertainment value, this is the best thing that Shyamalan has put his name on since Signs eight years ago. For a man with such a legendary ego, it's interesting that he'd allow someone else to tell his stories, let alone tell them better than he has been doing for the last several years.

Devil is a lean, mean, popcorn-flying thriller. It is not really a horror film, as it doesn't really horrify or inspire dread past the closing credits. But in this age of 'can you top this?' gorefests and remakes of 80s horror classics, Devil is a genuinely original scary movie that startles rather than repulses. What it lacks in ambition, it makes up for with sheer competence and craft, along with a genuine sense of goose-bumping fun. It's well-acted, it's sharply paced, and it delivers the 'wanna hear a scary story?' goods. The M. Night Chronicles is off to a fine and spooky start. Some may call it a glorified Twilight Zone episode. But I prefer to think of Devil as a feature-length version of the kind of story that Alvin Schwartz used to collect for his Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark collections. I mean that as a compliment.

Grade: B

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