Some of the most effective horror films are the kinds that reach out and touch the audience in an inescapable and deeply personal way. So while vampires – excepting the sparkly kind – make for scary monsters in film, their horror never spills into real life, whereas obsessed exes make for much more realistic villains and can have audiences recalling real-life examples from their own personal histories. Devil is a film that explores a real-world fear that everyone shares – whether they’ve had an occasion to feel it or not – and delivers the horror in a fair manner that will leave audiences with a certain level of disquiet.
In Devil, a man commits suicide, bringing Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) to the building where five strangers – a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a young woman (Bojana Novakovic), an old woman (Jenny O’Hara) and a salesman (Geoffrey Arend) happen to be trapped in an elevator together. While they await their rescue, strange occurrences begin to happen, like the lights mysteriously going out and bleeding wounds appearing on people. As two of the building security guards helplessly watch the confusion unfold over their security monitors, the more religious of the two (Jacob Vargas) believes he sees the face of the devil appear in the footage and that he’s come to collect souls. When one of the elevator passengers is murdered during one of the frequent blackouts, it’s obvious that someone in the elevator is a murderer and perhaps the culprit Detective Bowden is looking for isn’t as supernatural as he’s being led to believe.
Devil is impressive filmmaking on many levels. The filmmakers wisely set up the rules early so that audiences could focus on the story and figuring out who the killer is rather than filling plot holes. The film also strikes the right balance between screentime in the elevator and external shots to keep the audience from feeling unintentional claustrophobia. Given the tight quarters inside the elevator, gimmicky camera angles that obfuscate the killer are impractical, so the screen goes completely black any time something terrible happens, leaving audiences to add imaginary visuals to accompany the ghastly sounds coming from the darkness. In any other film this blackout convention might seem contrived, but in Devil it works marvelously.
The writing is mostly functional, with expositional dialog and characters who will share deeply scarring experiences with strangers without any provocation. Still, the actors are given just enough lines to say and things to do to give them just a little bit of character for audiences to grasp onto. Once the fear sets in, however, the characters all devolve into how any panic-stricken person might behave. The only real complaint with the writing is that an important character disappears from the film for a little too long before reappearing, but this minor flaw doesn’t break the film.
The entire cast does a great job transmitting the gravity, fear and helplessness of their situation to the audience. It’s satisfying to see the characters change as the situation degrades from lighthearted complaining to sheer terror as everyone realizes what’s going to happen next when the lights start flickering out. It’s worth noting that because everyone in the elevator is reduced to their base survival instincts they tend to lose their individuality and the nuances that give them their character, which is probably why they’re best described by their profession or outward appearance. So while the actors don’t necessarily play their characters well, they play average people well.
M. Night Shyamalan’s name is attached to this film, but he neither directed nor wrote the screenplay. Rather, he’s credited with the story idea. Considering Shyamalan’s recent track record of shoddy films, he might be better suited to this current position for the time being, because Devil is an effective movie full of all the horror and hope, tragedy and triumph and little moments that make audiences reflect on their own lives that have gone missing from Shyamalan’s recent work.