Friday, September 17, 2010

In the Details: DEVIL

The world of Devil is in trouble right from the opening frames. Gliding gray establishing shots of Philadelphia create an immediate sense of unease just by being upside down. The world is off-kilter. Something is very wrong. Narration from a skyscraper’s superstitious security guard (Jacob Vargas) tells us that the Devil can torment the damned while they still live by entering our world through spaces created by suicides. No sooner than the frame reorients itself, a person jumps out of one of the building’s high windows.

Soon after the policeman with a tragic past (Chris Messina) shows up to investigate, the real trouble starts. An elevator mysteriously breaks down leaving five people stuck suspended over twenty stories high. One is a sleazy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend). Another (Bokeem Woodbine) is one of the building’s security team, though it’s unfortunately only his second day. Also along for the ride are a spooked young woman (Bojana Novakovic), a suspicious elderly lady (Jenny O’Hara), and a guy with a sketchy beard of stubble (Logan Marshall-Green).

The cast remains stuck there for most of the movie as the plot unravels like Irwin Allen by way of Rod Serling. They aren’t exactly the most compelling bunch of characters, but the way they inevitably turn on each other is tensely exciting. The script by Brian Nelson, from a story concept by M. Night Shyamalan, is efficient, wrapping the whole thing up in a little less than 80 minutes. It turns out the deaths, and ratchets up the suspense, like clockwork. The lights go out. We hear ominous noises, punctuated by shouts and screams and various other sorts of exclamations. When the lights flicker back to life, there is one less person alive in that elevator. Who is the murderer? Spoiler alert: the answer is in the title.

The unconvincing pseudo-religious premise, which had me hopelessly wishing a third-act twist would reveal a real-world solution to the killings, is worn a little too heavily. But director John Erick Dowdle makes sure the proceedings move along quickly and creepily. The cinematography by the great Tak Fujimoto turns out surprisingly varied images, cannily exploiting claustrophobia and acrophobia. The movie has a strong sense of both confinement and extreme height that keeps the sense of danger omnipresent. I was much more unnerved by the feeling of being stuck in an elevator and the potential of a sudden drop than I was by any of the supernatural goofiness that adorns the plot.

The final moments overreach, as do various moments throughout the movie that border on just plain silly. A security guard talks about how everything in the building is going wrong this day and punctuates this by tossing a piece of toast in the air. It lands jelly side down. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t find wasted toast particularly frightening.

What I do find frightening is how effectively this movie worked on me. It’s silly and inessential, but I can’t deny that it had me shivering for more or less the entire time. Fujimoto’s images got under my skin. Dowdle’s brisk direction of Nelson’s thin script moves along swiftly and keeps things agreeably eerie. This is a dumb little suspenseful horror movie that’s sheer simplicity works.

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