Director John Erick Dowdle’s two parts psychological one part supernatural thriller Devil has been billed as coming “from the mind of M Night Shyamalan.” That’s a good start, because the dire quality of Shyamalan’s recent work (The Last Airbender, The Happening, Lady in the Water) suggests ideas have been coming out of quite a different part of his body.
Shyamalan wrote the “story” (not the screenplay) and produced this roaring popcorn thriller, which stems from the school of vintage high concept flicks – movies that can be described needing no more space than the back of a matchbox.
So, here we go: Devil is about five people trapped in an elevator. One of them is the devil.
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A simple enough premise, but Dowdle whips that bull until it bleeds, drains every drop of petrol out of the tank and keeps the audience hankering until the end – or at least until a superfluous (but mercifully short) epilogue.
Devil is a guessing game, a satanic version of Cluedo in which Dowdle keeps the audience reevaluating the characters and trying to second guess the plot lines. Which one of these dodgy people is the devil? The claustrophobic security guard? The shady mechanic? The slimy mattress salesman? The bitter old lady? The pretty woman?
The story for the most part sidesteps expectations, ducking and weaving and messing with the viewer’s mind, which is no easy task when the audience is inevitably littered with intellectually hostile wiseguys and gals trying to pick all the twists.
As Detective Bowden, the man who attempts to piece together the crimes as they happen – you see, when the elevator goes dark horrible things transpire, and Bowden watches from the security TVs – Chris Messina is an entertaining presence but misses out on the darker glints intended by the script. Similarly, while slickly paced and well balanced, Dowdle’s direction is a little too middle of the road to channel full tilt fear.
But Devil is a thriller that moves, and not just up and down. It’s a cracker horror movie: dark, smart and fast. To wrap up the mystery Dowdle’s hellevator arrives at a different level for a pitchfork sharp finale that pulls a move right out of the Agatha Christie playbook.
Devil’s Australian theatrical release date: December 2, 2010.