It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.
I swear this is the last Christian-themed horror film I cover for a while. I don’t know how I wound up wandering down this path, but I will be switching things up over the next few days.
I wonder what would have happened if Devil had been marketed as the Christian scare film that it is. In all honesty, the marketing department didn’t hide the film’s Christian slant. They were upfront about the religious elements in the premise: five people are stuck in an elevator and one of them is the Devil in disguise. Instead of highlighting the film’s religious theme of atoning for your sins before being punished for them, the marketing leaned heavily on the name of producer M. Night Shyamalan (who also has a story by credit) to sell it. Taking that decision into consideration, it’s actually surprising that the film was a modest financial success; by the time of Devil’s 2010 release, Shyamalan’s name had practically become a punchline (somewhat unfairly) for both critics and audiences. If the film had been marketed as the first studio-backed Christian thriller, could it have been more profitable? Would it have been shunned by non-religious viewers? Am I putting in way too much thought about a film that is largely a by-the-numbers supernatural thriller? The answers to those questions would be: maybe, probably, and definitely.
Five vaguely unlikable people (Bokeem Woodbine, Jenny O’Hara, Logan Marshall-Green, Geoffrey Arend, and Bojana Novakovic) get trapped in a malfunctioning elevator. Their personalities are barely sketched beyond their abilities to be increasingly awful to each other and panic at a moment’s notice.
Looking on while a building engineer tries in vain to get the elevator moving are Lustig (Matt Craven) and Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), two of the building’s security guards. Ramirez is a religious sort and he explains to anyone who will listen (and in voiceover to the audience when the other characters get sick of him) that the scenario they are witnessing reminds him of a story his mother told him as a child. In the story, the Devil would come to Earth and trap a group of sinners together and kill them one by one. There are more aspects to the story Ramirez tells, but the details become more arbitrary to fit the plot as the movie rolls along.
On the case is Bowden (Chris Messina), a police detective who happened to be in the building investigating a suicide. Bowden—who, in his first scene, not only is established as a recovering alcoholic and widower, but also an atheist—becomes increasingly frantic as the people in the elevator start getting killed whenever the lights conveniently go out. Constantly a half step behind the plot as he tries to figure out who the people in the elevator are and what their motives might be to kill each other, Bowden starts to wonder if that kook Ramirez might just be on to something with his “the Devil did it” theory.
For as silly as I just made the film sound in that set up, Devil is a decent little thriller. Director John Erick Dowdle finds ways to keep the action in the elevator tense and claustrophobic while allowing the audience room to breathe by following Bowden on his investigation (even though the investigation is largely wheel-spinning to fill running time until the climactic reveal). He also keeps the audience guessing about who the Devil is by casting recognizable faces without using anyone famous enough to seem like the obvious choice or a red herring.
I don’t want to give the impression that Devil is some kind of underrated masterpiece. For the most part, it’s simply an exercise in smashing together supernatural horror, a murder mystery, and a police procedural and hoping something interesting emerges. The screenplay by Brian Nelson tries—and fails—to supply Bowden with a character arc and a love interest. But the film’s eighty minute running time doesn’t allow for such niceties as character development and Bowden’s investigation feels a lot like an episode of Law & Order with tons of exposition delivered during static dialogue exchanges.
Thankfully, the central game of trying to spot the Devil is fun. Even the telegraphed third act twist and heavy-handed final line by Ramirez that if the Devil exists then “so does God,” don’t derail the movie from delivering as a modest thriller. That may not be the strongest of endorsements, but there is something endearing about Devil’s dogged adherence to hitting the beats of a Christian scare film—even if no one involved with the production seemed willing to admit that’s what they made.
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