The well-documented declining fortunes of M. Night Shyamalan – last seen squatting down over your local Odeon and squeezing out The Last Airbender for your viewing displeasure – have reached a point now where the shamed twist-peddler has been forced into a new career.
He’s producing once-a-year features based upon his own fevered original concepts, to be directed by his legion of sick disciples, eager to earn the favour of their twisted master. The first squirt of this annual cinematic bukkake is Devil; a film which improves upon its author’s three bastardisations but remains in itself a thoroughly lightweight, unintelligent morsel.
The Tales From the Crypt-esque pseudo-plot sees five strangers become stuck in an office lift and they’re subsequently terrorised by an unseen menace who may or may not be the Devil in human form, sent to torture the living before he harvests their souls. Meanwhile, Chris Messina’s troubled detective tries desperately to free the group from their unfortunate situation.
In all honesty, this is one hack reviewer who wholeheartedly adores the film’s frankly hilarious premise, bringing to mind as it does the throwaway pulpy simplicity of an old EC Comic strip. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with such an absurd undertaking, and indeed it offers excellent potential for both the tension and plot twists that Shyamalan has used to both build up and piss on his career.
However, therein lies one of the film’s main problems; it feels far more like an inflated anthology horror segment (or, at most, a Masters Of Horror episode) than a fully-blown motion picture worthy of worldwide release. It is a film almost solely reliant on the cheap trick of its central dilemma, and as such any peripheral happenings – the plight of loved ones wheeled out at the eleventh hour, for example – feel like strictly superfluous plot tumours, whilst its ceaseless, po-faced pomposity largely rids it of any superficial enjoyment.
Certainly, the film’s main ploys lie in a marriage of mystery and ambiguity; a steadfast refusal to divulge too much detail (including surnames) pertaining to each of the lift-locked quintet or their respective motivations so as to keep the audience constantly guessing as to which one is the titular Father of Lies. To a certain point this is relatively effective, allowing for the odd sly revelation, but it comes at the heavy cost of decent characterisation. It’s hard, after all, for an audience to sympathise with characters beyond a purely primal level if not only their background and motives, but also their behaviour itself, remains unclear to such a significant degree.
However, one might argue that an eventual clever, satisfying payoff might justify such lofty sacrifices. Unfortunately, this utopian vision of a denouement never comes to pass – unlike his acclaimed celluloid calling-card, The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan’s script here selfishly refuses to give the audience an opportunity to “play along” and participate in the Beelzebub-guessing-game by hiding away potential clues and seemingly determining its final revelation by picking a name out of a hat.
Though everyone is initially a Satanic suspect before being gradually narrowed down, this is done not through the altruistic provision of clues or hints but rather darkness-soaked set-pieces, whose horrific ramifications are simply explained away as Lucifer fucking around rather than examined in more detail. Supposed revelations as to character backgrounds simply lead to nowhere and serve only as contrived red-herrings designed to stretch the film’s running time at the expense of the audience’s attention. This is, frankly, a resolutely imbecilic film, who – like an embittered, shifty-eyed only child clutching hungrily onto their Pokémon cards – greedily refuses to share information with others.
The film’s performances, meanwhile, are generally passable; Messina’s lead is sympathetic if forgettable, dragging a heavy-handed dead family back-story that was last seen providing characterisation in Signs. Though Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine all do their suitably naturalistic best as both victims and potential Abaddons, Jenny O’Hara’s old woman barely registers and Geoffrey Arend’s affected routine as the film’s obligatory salesman/jerk simply bemuses.
A nice supporting performance from Matt Craven stands out most, although his Hispanic sidekick – intent on force-feeding those around him a ham-fisted narration seeped in borderline-racist superstition – deserves to be immediately cast off into the circle of Hell usually reserved for preachy, irritating gobshites such as himself.
In sum, Devil – though not as terrible as the ever-increasing legions of Shyamalan-haters may have hoped – is a distinctly inadequate cretin of a movie, director John Erick Dowdle lacking his glorious overlord’s skill at arousing and maintaining tension (and filming his title credits upside-down, in what one assumes is a misguided attempt at originality which instead comes across at a low-budget sweded recreation of Inception), whilst the film is stuck with an ass-pull faux-twist of a resolution delivered in a manner which anyone acquainted with the horror genre over the past decade will be thoroughly unimpressed by.
Shyamalan may think himself a master of storytelling, but in the end the film’s crucial lack of characterisation and clues so as to incite audience interest leave it resembling more an especially maudlin Scooby-Doo episode, albeit one with a somewhat more Biblical overtones and a Latino Scrappy-Doo frantically cramming bullshit morality down one’s throat at every available opportunity.