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Devil (2010) review

September 18, 2010

written by: Brian Nelson (screenplay) & M. Night Shyamalan (story)
produced by: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle, M. Night Shyamalan & Sam Mercer
directed by: John Erick Dowdle
rated PG-13 (for violence and disturbing images, thematic material and some language including sexual references)
80 min.
U.S. release date: September 17, 2010
I really wish adding some context to this review would somehow redeem my time spent watching the irredeemable “Devil”. Maybe by saying I was already kind of ticked that I had to sit through eight trailers at what was touted as an “advanced screening” that was supposed to start at 11:59pm and instead started at 12:22am, would justify the surly taste in my cinematic palette after being subjected to this banal attempt at Christian horror. I would like to be wrong and let you know that this movie is worth your time….but that is not the case
“Devil” is cursed with two factors that ultimately doom its chance at salvation. First, Universal Pictures has decided to not only bump up its release date from February of next year to right now with no screenings for critics. It’s that good. Second, the film is being marketed as “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan”, an audacious, mind-boggling way to sell a film considering that this is the same mind that dropped “The Last Airbender” on us. Whoever slapped that line on the poster should be slapped.

Admittedly, the trailer may have sparked interest but this is more proof that trailers cannot be trusted. We already know that they either show all the parts worth seeing or contain scenes that never make the final cut. Who knows what will happen with the next two installments of “The Night Chronicles”, this unfortunately being the first. It’s too bad really since the premise has a certain “The Twilight Zone” draw to it that could’ve provided a modern creepy character-driven fable.

DEVIL Still 1

Five strangers walk into an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper as a foreboding storm builds along the horizon. It sounds like a set-up for a joke but these are actually the pawns in this macabre tale. There’s a shifty mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a belligerent old lady (Jenny O’Hara), a newly hired temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a sleazy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), and an self-entitled woman (Bojana Novakovic). Their car comes to an abrupt halt midway up and it doesn’t take long for them get irritable with each other, as they give into their own fears. Soon the lights start to flicker and then fade in and out altogether and then it becomes obvious they are not alone. There is something in there with them, attacking them, toying with them, making them lash out at each other and taking them out one by one.

We are not the only witnesses to the happenings inside the car. The elevator’s camera can apparently see everything and is being monitored by the building security cameras. Two guards, the calm and concerned Lustig (Matt Craven) and the overtly religious Vincent (Jacob Vargas), notice the car has stopped and reads “under maintainance” and they attempt to calm and assure the irritable passengers that help is on the way. They see them on their monitors and can communicate to the passengers but they cannot hear them, making it all the more frustrating for those trapped.

When one of them is attacked from behind after a power fade, the guards call the police before any further harm occurs. Outside dealing with an apparent suicide jumper from the same building, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), answers the call and takes charge, trying his best to rescue these five people before they kill themselves. Despite digging up some suspicious history on each individual, Bowden soon realizes there’s more going on here than just the instability of human nature. With no visual evidence or natural explanation available to him, he’s inclined to agree with the religious rantings of Vargas, who is certain that Satan himself is toying with these trapped souls.

All they can do is watch the bloody body count rise in the tight transport that has now become a death trap. It soon becomes clear though that there may be a reason that Vargas and Bowden are observing these tragic events together.

DEVIL Still 2

Shyamalan may not have directed this wanna-be B-movie thriller, but it is clearly tainted by him. His trademark forced scares, insulting exposition and pretentious, heavy-handed message is present from start to finish. Particularly the finish, where the message of forgiveness is hammered into our already throbbing heads. It’s too bad that screenwriter, Brian Nelson (co-writer of “30 Days of Night”) couldn’t filter the forced themes present here and provide a script that would allow the audience to work a little more, maybe even glean a revelation or two from subtlety instead of the blunt drama that I was assaulted with.

It’s also a shame that this script doesn’t offer more substance since the movie’s flatness can’t be blamed on the actors. They all seem quite capable, considering how familiar I am to their other work, yet they are subject here to a script that could have been written by a Youth Group Leader possibly trying to urbanize a parable.

Unfortunately, the first mistake the screenwriters and director John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”) make is to include a narrator that is compelled to walk us through the events shot by shot. At first, the voice of the narrator sounded to me like M. Night (which would not surprise me), but then it became clear that it is Vargas who is recollecting a childhood story his mother told him. The story comes across as a mysterious myth called The Devil’s Meeting, in which the Devil appears to sinners and tortures them before dragging them to Hell, always kicking off with a suicide. An interesting idea but I could’ve done without someone spelling that out for me. Maybe one of the trapped passengers should have mentioned such a story as a way of explaining their hellish situation.

At least, the Dowdle brothers manage to maintain the tension for such confined settings, making the most out of the characters short time in this elevator. This would have been a stronger character examination if the camera didn’t leave the elevator after the victims entered. We could have been stuck in there with them instead of going back and forth to Bowden and the guards. While Messina (“Away We Go”) is good as Bowden and his character has a heart-wrenching emotional arc (which hints at Shyamalan’s “Signs”), it feels like it takes away from the attempt at terror inside the elevator. To really sell something like inescapable entrapment, you have to keep the audience trapped as well. The upcoming film “Buried” gets it, why can’t these filmmakers?

Are there some shocks? Sure. But more often than not, the audience will be chuckling instead of shrieking. It could be that viewers have seen it all and they are hard to scare in their seats but giving something intelligent, real and well, frightening, always helps. It just feels like we’ve seen all these characters before and that’s an important factor since it’s people who often scare us more than the settings in which they are in.

They say the devil is in the details but in this “Devil”, the details are flimsy, flat and failed. No twist or misdirection could have prevented such obviousness and each attempt to outsmart the audience is just insulting. Maybe the film required more than just 80 minutes to really sell such a tale. Either that or strongly prune and edit the script to deliver a taut, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” feel to really leave us with something to think about. In the best” Twilight Zone” episodes, it is always difficult to see right away who the antagonist is or what will be learned by the protagonist. It is so frustrating that both elements are all too obvious here, I knew right away who was possessed by the devil immediately and also what Bowden is meant to learn here. A mind is a terrible thing to waste and if M. Night Shyamalan is insistent on wasting our time with his, he can keep his mind to himself.

DEVIL Still 3


8 Comments leave one →
  1. C.S. permalink
    September 20, 2010 4:34 pm

    David, your reviews usually tend to mirror my own opinion (with Mr. Balsom and I being polar opposites). However, in this case, our views differ wildly.

    I hope I’m not being too bold when I suggest that it sounds like you were irritable (as referenced in the review) and tired (the past midnight start time) going into the movie, which could have possibly affected your enjoyment of what unfolded onscreen.

    I saw an early afternoon showing where I was fresh and obviously wide awake. I won’t ever claim this movie comes close to the greatness that was The Sixth Sense or Signs, but I found it very good for what it was – a simple but effective whodunit horror/suspense thriller.

    The “Christian” message, as you called it, appealed to me – but I can understand that being a turn-off if you aren’t Christian. Then again, the name of the movie IS Devil, so you had to know what you were getting with this. With that said, while this movie may have had more religious overtones than most, I’d still hardly call it a religious movie, per se.

    I’d suggest giving Devil a second chance, but I don’t know if it’s worth that much effort. I liked it, but at the same time, I’m not exactly rushing over to label it a masterpiece or anything.

    • September 20, 2010 5:01 pm

      Mr. Lewis,

      Spoiler alert: we’re on opposite sides of the fence again.

      After sitting next to Mr. Fowlie during this screening, I can assure you that our moods were quite chipper, and then quickly smashed to the ground like a broken elevator 😉 when we sat through this movie.

      One of the problems with DEVIL lays in the fact that it’s NOT a simple whodunit thriller. SPOILER: the narrator pretty much tells you in the beginning of the film that everybody’s going down. The marketing of this film is pitching a claustrophobic thriller set almost solely inside an elevator, but the final product couldn’t have been further from that. In times when the action in the elevator gets interesting, or remotely suspenseful, we were taken out of the elevator and put upstairs in a security office, or outside of the building, which completely killed any built up suspense. The premise was there, but the execution was a failure.

      Regarding the “Christian message” topic, the name of the movie IS in fact DEVIL, but the villain in this film hardly portrayed the devil depicted in the Bible, or other religious texts. The idea that the devil is stuck inside the body of only one person is a letdown at best. The device of the security guard as the narrator and the voice of religion was lazy and cheesy. I agree with you a little bit, that we called fit DEVIL into the religious film genre per se, however it was uncomfortably bordering on religious camp.

      In your last statement about not labeling DEVIL a masterpiece, I hear the faint sounds of trucks backing up in the distance. Why in the world would somebody see a film twice in the theaters if they didn’t feel extremely positive about it? I didn’t talk to anyone in our screening who didn’t think this film was utter hogwash, and I certainly wouldn’t throw down $11.50 to barely survive it again.

      Debate aside, thanks for checking out our site. Going back and forth about movies is a great time! If you don’t agree with my reviews, tell me why! I look forward to more debates.

      Love, Paul

      • Rick Heath permalink
        September 20, 2010 7:02 pm

        A well thought-out and poignant summary of (what sounds like) yet another sub-par M. Night Shyamalan offering. Despite C.S.’s counterpoints, I have zero desire to see this film – unless ‘Dracula: Dead and Loving It’ is already checked out. It’s surprising that a studio would still produce any of Shyamalan’s movies, given that they all follow the same path of melo-drama and take-itself-too-seriously-…ness. Fool me once with ‘Sixth Sense’ (which was actually quite good), twice with ‘Signs’ (starring a clean-shaven Jaquin Phoenix), but a third time with ‘Lady in the Water?’ – shame on me. I will not be fooled yet again with ‘Devil.’ (‘Unbreakable’ notwithstanding, which was decent, until the end…)

      • September 20, 2010 8:32 pm

        I hear ya, but this ain’t no Shyamalan pic. They’re just using his name in the marketing as a producer… for some reason!

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      September 21, 2010 5:06 pm

      Too bold? Never. Irritable and Tired? Yes. But not in the way in which you suggest. Seeing a premise with such potential nosedive into mediocrity is irritating and seeing it happen often is tiring. Such is the case though when you watch so many movies. It’s disheartening to see an opportunity to deliver something unique ultimately fail (in the case of “Devil”, for the reasons mentioned in my review). Simple it was and simple can be great, yet it was far from the effectiveness it could have had. A “Christian message”, for that matter ANY message is fine as long as filmmakers allow the audience to discover that for themselves (isn’t that what Christ did?) instead of hammering it over our heads with blatantly obvious and repetitious methods. Is “Devil” a religious movie? That depends on the viewer, I guess. I would consider any movies depicting exorcisms or possessions “religious horror” but it may not be a recognizable genre. Like Paul mentioned, there’s no way I’d consider seeing “Devil” again, at least anytime soon. I see as a flick I may watch on FX while folding laundry late one Friday night somewhere down the road (cuz my Friday nights are so hot.) I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and hope you find our reviews, regardless of whether you agree with us, helpful, entertaining, and educating!

  2. C.S. permalink
    September 21, 2010 7:56 pm

    Wow, I didn’t expect to come here and see four more comments. I seem to have stirred up a nice little discussion. 🙂

    Going to comment on a few select things:


    “The idea that the devil is stuck inside the body of only one person is a letdown at best.”

    Actually, this isn’t the case in the movie. The devil specifically says “Today, I’m the old lady” (or something along those lines), indicating that it changes forms based on the situation. If you meant only one body among the people in the movie, however, then of course you are correct. Assuming the latter, I personally would have been disappointed if the devil ended up being all of them at certain points. I treated the film like a whodunit, and if I had found out there was no one main culprit, I would have felt cheated and considered it another terrible M. Night “twist” ending for the sake of it.

    “I certainly wouldn’t throw down $11.50 to barely survive it again.”

    Eeek! And I thought I was getting shafted when the movie theater here raised the price to $10.50. It’s out of control. But my rant about the decline of the theatrical experience belongs elsewhere.

    “If you don’t agree with my reviews, tell me why!”

    Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying you’re “wrong,” per se. It just comes down to the fact you hate movies I like and vice versa. You’re opinion is completely valid and well-stated. I just tend to go the opposite way most of the time. If you’re looking for a specific example, Brooklyn’s Finest comes to mind. You didn’t like it, whereas I thought it was very good. With that said, I can understand why someone wouldn’t like it.


    “It’s surprising that a studio would still produce any of Shyamalan’s movies…”

    As Paul already pointed out, Shyamalan’s involvement was fairly minimal at best. It still has a lot of his trademarks though. In any case, I’m not ready to give up on the man just yet. True, The Village was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen and toxic buzz kept me away from everything else he’s done since – though I do wonder if Lady in the Water is perhaps some kind of misunderstood classic. I still haven’t seen it, and I’m not quite brave enough yet, but one day…


    “…ANY message is fine as long as filmmakers allow the audience to discover that for themselves (isn’t that what Christ did?) instead of hammering it over our heads with blatantly obvious and repetitious methods.”

    I assume you mean the narration. I realize that breaks every “show, don’t tell” rule, but I kinda liked it. It gave an otherwise absurd situation some much-needed weight. It was still a bit silly and overdone, but I wouldn’t want them to remove it from the movie. I know I’m in the minority there though.

    “I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and hope you find our reviews, regardless of whether you agree with us, helpful, entertaining, and educating!”

    Absolutely. I love the site. Thanks for engaging me in this little back-and-forth. I’ve found it enjoyable to exchange our opinions.


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