The stock of writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan couldn’t be much lower after a series of feeble and derisory films that have contrived to make his first two (The Sixth Sense [1999) and Unbreakable ) seem half decent. The reality is that Shyamalan has yet to direct a good film, and a film that has his name attached to it is only fit for the trash collector. That is until the release of Devil, which was based upon a story by Shyamalan, and is refreshingly bereft of his normal posturing and pretence, and has a narrative which isn’t totally reliant on tricks. It is still recognisable as its authors work because of a central gimmick which entraps five total strangers in a malfunctioning elevator. If the claustrophobia, proximity, and fear of this situation isn’t enough, one of the occupants also happens to be the devil. This central proposition is intriguing enough to carry the whole film, and the film is blessed with a director who approaches the material with economy and a briskness of pace. I’m not sure how John Erick Dowdle got this assignment, because his previous film Quarantine (2008) was so appalling that new adjectives had to be invented to describe just how bad it was. But Dowdle emerges as the unlikely hero of Devil because of an efficient and smooth filmmaking approach that mirrors the simplicity of the story. The screenplay by Brian Nelson - the ‘brain’ behind moronic flotsam such as Hard Candy (2005) and 30 Days of Night (2007) offers levity to the restricted confinement of the elevator with two other narrative strands offering a police investigation, and the efforts of various professionals to free the unfortunates who are trapped. But Nelson does make one decision which almost destroys Devil before it has an opportunity to get going.
The scenes in the elevator are suitably cramped, and the shots on CCTV are imbued with flickering lights, grainy footage, and when a murder is being committed total darkness. These effects work very well, and much is achieved through a minimalist attitude to filmmaking. In fact everything about Devil is minimal - the budget was a mere $10,000,000, the locations are few, and the performances are restrained. I imagine that the name of M. Night Shyamalan could put some people off watching, but Devil totally lacks the self indulgent and ill considered mysticism of his directorial efforts. It is not totally devoid of these trappings as the character of Ramirez indicates, and with its themes of destiny, fate and redemption it is clearly a product of the Shyamalan universe. This is intended as the first of several films to be made under the Night Chronicles banner, and this is a very effective start which makes me look forward to the next.
© Shaun Anderson 2011