I’m not sure which sentence sounds more like the set up for a joke: “Five people walk into an elevator…” or “A new film from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan”. It’s true that Shyamalan’s name no longer evokes the awe or inspires the anticipation it once did (but let’s not forget, it once did). After a series of increasingly disappointing misfires (The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender), it has become apparent he won’t be able to repair his tarnished reputation all on his lonesome. Hence the genius of The Night Chronicles: ideas-man Shyamalan comes up with three stand-alone thrillers, but will leave the actual writing and directing to some other talented young filmmakers. John Erick Dowdle is the first director at the bat, and Brian Nelson is the first writer tasked with translating Shyamalan’s thoughts into a screenplay. The resulting product, Devil, is the first instalment of The Night Chronicles trilogy. Although far from an immediate rejuvenation of Shyamalan’s cinematic legitimacy, Devil reminds us of the best and worst elements of the auteur’s oeuvre. Mild praise, but this already improves upon Shyamalan’s most recent films, which have exclusively featured the worst elements.
The premise – if not ripped directly from an episode of The Twilight Zone, than most certainly from the imagination of one who has watched far too many episodes of The Twilight Zone – is simple enough. Five complete strangers (Geoffrey Arend, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green and Jenny O’Hara) find themselves stuck in an elevator, and one by one they start to die. Hmm, maybe ‘die’ is the wrong word. One by one, they are brutally killed. A police officer (Chris Messina) with a past (and they always have a past) is sent to the scene to figure out why they’re slaughtering one another. A highly religious Mexican security guard (and the film’s narrator, Jacob Vargas) insists that they are witnessing a Devil’s Meeting; a live re-enactment of an old religious folk tale, in which the Devil himself comes to Earth, corrals a bunch of sinners, and drags them all to hell. So here comes the (admittedly, rather ingenious hook): one of the five sinners stuck in the elevator, is in fact, the … well, see title.
First up, ‘the good’. I love the concept; so simple, yet so chilling. It’s scary enough to be stuck in an elevator (especially if it’s with a co-worker who you don’t recall the name of; or, if someone has just awkwardly passed gas), but to be stuck in one with the devil – that’s particularly upsetting. Your day just doesn’t improve once that happens. The uneasy sensation of getting caught in a lift as it shudders to a halt is captured perfectly, and the film’s spectacularly disquieting opening shot – an upside-down tracking shot of the Philadelphia skyline – sets the tone perfectly. The film’s premise and this shot may seem gimmicky, and some will insist that it’s already been done in the past. But it hasn’t – I certainly can’t recall seeing it before – and thus Devil works like a catchy pop song, the hook for which we swear we’d already heard a million times on our very first listen.
But like many pop songs, Devil is ultimately forgettable, and this leads us to ‘the bad’. How I wish that we’d stayed in the elevator for the film’s entire duration. I’d say only 30-40% of the film actually takes place inside the lift. The rest of the film follows the police and security guards as they try to unravel the mystery and discover the identity of the people inside. Couldn’t Dowdle and Nelson have shown the cojones of Rodrigo Cortes, who this year delivered the successful Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-box experiment Buried? Wouldn’t it have been a wonderful to see five actors spend 80 minutes trapped inside an elevator, get to know one another, become paranoid, and try to figure out who’s killing who, and why? Surely that is the kind of writing/acting/directing exercise that these Night Chronicles should encourage. Since we spend such little time in the actual elevator with the five trapped souls, we never really get to know them; therefore, we don’t care when they are swiftly escorted by the devil himself from this earthly plane. And since we don’t feel trapped in there with them, we never really feel scared either.
I have personally always been a fan of Shyamalan’s religious undertones (or should that be overtones). Although it’s never pleasant to watch a filmmaker bury their film in theology (which he would eventually go on to do in his later films), I found his application of concepts such as faith, forgiveness, and the afterlife in The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable to be rather powerful. Although Devil can’t claim to be as “powerful”, it does offer a nice commentary on religious beliefs, similar to the recent (although far superior) The Last Exorcism. The police officer, played nicely by the likable Messina, is faced with a choice in the film’s final moments – forgiveness or revenge. In any other horror film, he would make the satisfying, but ultimately selfish choice. Here, he doesn’t. Devil ends with a hint of hope; a major note from composer Fernando Velázquez. Dowdle and Nelson bring Shyamalan’s thematic cues to their natural conclusion. The result? Devil is a horror film tailor-made for Christian audiences. Far be it from me to incite a religious debate over a disposable single-location fright-flick, so I’ll leave it to you to decide whether “a horror film tailor-made for Christian audiences” is a good or bad thing.
Devil is in cinemas now.