I remember the first time I heard about this movie.
I was at Comic Con, watching Trailer Frenzy, when a preview for Devil started. At first, everyone seemed to be into it—more than they were into cutesy crap like Alpha and Omega, anyway—and then these words appeared across the screen:
. . . from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan . . .
The booing was so loud, it could have been mistaken for thunder.
Five people are trapped in an elevator. One of them is the Devil
1. First, I feel obligated to point out that M. Night Shyamalan didn’t write or direct this film. He produced the movie and he wrote the basic story, but he was not responsible for the screenplay or, presumably, the film as a whole. The real director’s name is John Erick Dowdle, and the writer’s name is Brian Nelson. I think Dowdle makes some stupid choices. I think Brian Nelson deserves to be punched in the face.
2. See, Devil isn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting it to be. Then again, I was expecting it to be pretty bad. There’s so much more potential here than I had originally assumed, but my God, the writing. The writing.
As Nigel St. Nigel would say, the writing makes you want to weep and then die.
While there are some decent quotes in this script (I’ll come back to them later), the exposition is so awful that it’s giving My Soul To Take a run for it’s movie. (Side note: I’m amused that My Soul To Take has become my new standard for total suckdom.) Here is the opening voiceover narration used in Devil:
“When I was a child, my mother would tell me a story about how the Devil roams the Earth. Sometimes, she said, he would take human form so he could punish the damned on Earth before claiming their souls. The ones he chose would be gathered together and tortured as he hid amongst them, pretending to be one of them. I always believed my mother was telling me an old wives’ tale.”
Oy. I’m thinking of preparing a lecture on how not to write voiceover narration. Lesson Number One: please do not start your story by telling us about your creepy mother’s fixation on morbid folktales or mythologies that just happen to explain the entire plot of the film. This is like Legion all over again. Only shockingly worse—worse—because the voiceover narration doesn’t even have the decency to shut up. Despite my total distaste for most bookend narration, the one positive thing about it is that you don’t have to keep listening to ridiculous drivel for most of the film. Anytime anything even remotely interesting happens in Devil, the corny narration comes back to drive the tension right out of the film.
3. Because there is tension in this film. Not right away . . . the first part of this movie is pretty bad . . . but I’d say about a half-hour in, things start picking up and you start getting interested despite yourself. Even without the supernatural stuff, the basic idea of sticking five strangers in an elevator and killing them off one by one is exciting. There’s a certain amount of energy in these scenes—
4. —energy that’s promptly taken away by either the narration or by the director’s ridiculous camera angles. Apparently, Mr. Dowdle is fond of grabbing the audience’s attention with silly zooms up elevator shafts or upside-down cityscapes. I could forgive the elevator stuff—it’s unnecessary, fine, but at least it’s inside the building—but the constant cutaways to the city and its ominously darkening blue sky . . . look, dude, I get that you’re trying to show that evil is coming and whatnot, but can you truly not appreciate that a murder mystery that takes place inside of an elevator should, at its heart, be a claustrophobic thriller? What the fuck is claustrophobic about a big open blue sky? Aiya.
5. It would also help if some of the characters were given a bit more, you know, character. Particularly the people in the elevator. Most of them aren’t completely obnoxious cliches, at least, but they don’t have a lot of depth, either. I guess it’s not imperative that they do, but it would serve to make the mystery aspect of the film more exciting.
6. On the other hand, for not having much in the way of character, the actors in Devil do a pretty good job. The reason that Devil works at all is that the actors do their level best to work with the material. I’m not saying we’ve got Oscar-caliber acting here, but with this kind of script, I would have expected more people to phone it in and get the easy paycheck. I don’t think that’s what anyone did here, so I’m going to give a few shout-outs.
When Messina first arrived on scene . . . well, I hated him initially. His character is just introduced so badly. The crappy dialogue explaining that he’s a recovering alcoholic is only broken up by the even more abhorrent voiceover—which, admittedly, is not even remotely Messina’s fault, since he’s not the one delivering said narration—but I took it out on him, anyway. And I may have said some mean things about his hair, too.
But once the movie stops trying to set the stage, things get infinitely better, giving Messina less-awful material to work with. His dialogue greatly improves, and he delivers it well. He especially nails the part where he dryly talks about his tragic backstory. In fact, I think it’s this bit that finally sold me on the character, allowing me to move past that beginning bullshit “forgiveness is salvation” exposition.
Everybody does a pretty good job in the elevator for what they’re given, but I do think that Logan Marshall-Green has the very best reactions. I like that he starts off relatively calm and descends into visible terror. There’s a good progression there that definitely seems like it should be credited to the actor, not the script.
Matt Craven tends to play a lot of assholes, so it was kind of nice to see him in a not-total-shmuck role. His character probably has less depth than anyone else in the film, but there’s just something about him that sticks out here, that I like. He has a nice rapport with the other, far more religious security guard . . .
. . . okay, there’s simply no making this character good, but I think Jacob Vargas tries, at least, and that’s more than I would have done. Vargas’s character, Ramirez, is the one who’s in the know about, “The Devil’s Meeting,” the folklore that apparently inspired the whole story behind Devil. He’s also the one providing the truly awful narration and is really only around to make leaps of logic that nobody would ever make and let the audience know what’s going on in giant blocks of exposition. The character of Ramirez is easily one of the worst things about Devil, but that can’t really be blamed on the actor. I honestly don’t think Alan Rickman could have done anything with this character, and as far as I’m concerned, Alan Rickman might as well be God.
7. Some of the better quotes:
Annoying Sales Guy: “Oh, this is not good . . .”
Detective Bowden (showing Ramirez a piece of paper from his wallet): “An apology note left at the site of a hit and run. My wife and son were killed out on Bethlehem Pike five years ago, but that’s okay, because whoever did it is sorry. You can tell by the heartfelt apology on the back of a carwash coupon. So no, I don’t believe in the devil. You don’t need him. People are bad enough by themselves.”
Dwight: “You sure you’re reading that right? Your eyes aren’t what they used to be.”
Lustig: “You know what, I’ll ask your mom to read it for me next time I bend her over the console.”
Dwight: “My mom’s 78; have at it.”
Ramirez: “You see it?”
Lustig: “Yeah, look, that’s just . . . that’s just grain in the image. That’s, you know, it’s a mistake. It’s like when people see Jesus in a pancake or something.”
Apropos of nothing . . . my newest favorite imaginary band name is Jesus Pancakes.
8. The PG-13 rating doesn’t completely hurt the film . . . most of the time, the movie works without an R-rating . . . but when a character is supposed to get impaled at the jugular, you kind of have to take their word for it.
9. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: why are all the religious horror movies Catholic? I demand that Hollywood put out a Methodist horror movie!
10. Finally, I didn’t entirely call the ending. But I got decent chunks of it, so go me. Devil has twists, but they’re not, like, Giant Twists, so for the most part, I think it works.
You know, except for all the atrocious writing.
So, the movie begins with dramatic music and an upside-down . . . Philly? Is this somewhere in Philly? Anyway, the city is tinted blue and upside-down for no apparent reason. The music is so tense, it seems to be screaming at you, Get ready! The Devil is coming! But it’s also hideously mismatched. I mean, the cityscape looks cool and all, but it’s not nearly as foreboding as the director clearly wants it to be.
Slightly more foreboding: a body suddenly falls from the sky and crashes into a van. You’d think this would be more important to the plot, but it’s really not at all. Ramirez will later helpfully inform us that The Devil’s Meeting is always preceded by a suicide (which, why?), but otherwise . . . yeah, it’s fairly irrelevant to the rest of the story.
We’re then introduced to our hero, Detective Bowden, and his sponsor, Stereotypical Wise Sponsor. Stereotypical Wise Sponsor only sticks around long enough to inform us that if Bowden wants to stay sober, he’ll have to learn to forgive or some other blather. It’s the kind of conversation that makes you wish one of the actors would just hold up a sign that says, Hey, dumbshits. Pay attention, cause this is IMPORTANT.
I incorrectly assumed that Bowden would be one of the guys in the elevator, but this is not the case. The people in the elevator are as follows: Annoying Sales Guy, Bitchy Older Lady, Hot Young Brunette, Enigmatic Once-Marine, and Claustrophobic Security Guard. I’m sure they have names, but . . . eh. They don’t really have enough actual character to warrant names.
Anyway, the lights go out in the elevator a lot, and whenever they do, crazy shit starts happening. At first, Hot Young Brunette just gets her back sliced up a little, but the stakes are raised quite a bit higher when Annoying Sales Guy (Geoffrey Arend, who I best know from Garden State) is murdered. He’s supposed to be impaled through the neck, I believe, but the angle isn’t as clear as it would be in an R-rated film. For my money, it kind of looks like he took it in the clavicle.
Detective Bowden is called in to investigate about now. Poor Dwight the Engineer also gets killed about now, when I guess the Devil makes him fall down the elevator shaft? He lands on top of the elevator, and his blood drips through the ceiling, which is always a nice, creepy touch.
Detective Bowden tries to figure out who the killer is while the fire department tries to free the people trapped in the elevator. Ramirez, who saw a face-like shape on the security camera, is convinced that the Devil is behind all this. His evidence? A piece of toast falling jelly-side down on the floor. Bowden does not escort Ramirez out of the building for being a crazy person, but only because the screenwriter still needs him around to keep delivering the silly exposition.
Now, I should mention for those of you who don’t know: I’ve been agnostic pretty much all my life. It would probably take a lot more evidence to convince me that Satan was terrorizing a bunch of people on an elevator than, say, your average Catholic. (Which will not be a bonus for me if I ever find myself in a supernatural thriller. I’ll probably be that girl saying, “You guys, it’s just a story,” right before I suddenly get eaten.)
Thing is, while there are clearly some nutters out there in the world, I’ve met a decent amount of religious people who are not even close to crazy, and while some of these people might come to believe that Satan is orchestrating all these events, no one who is legally sane would leap to the conclusions that Ramirez leaps to. It’s not his beliefs that I object to, just how quick he gets there. Ramirez is the kind of guy who says, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? SATAN!”
Well, anyway. The writers make a big deal in the beginning of the movie about how all the visitors have to sign in at the lobby, so Bowden tries to figure out who everybody in the elevator is and if they signed in or not. It turns out that pretty much everyone in this elevator is kind of a shitty person. Annoying Sales Guy more or less stole people’s life savings. Bitchy Older Lady is a thief, and she’s the next one to bite it—she gets hanged. (Hanged? Hung? I feel like it’s hanged, but I can never remember for sure, which is why I’m not bothering to look it up now. I’ll forget by tomorrow anyway, when they inevitably both sound wrong again.)
Lustig (the non-religious security guard) manages to electrocute himself by being an asshole. He goes to investigate . . . something . . . and finds a loose power cable in the basement with a lot of water surrounding it. Instead of reporting this to people who would be properly equipped to handle such a thing, he decides he’ll just take care of it himself with this random stick. Seriously. I like you, Lustig, but you no longer even deserve to live.
Does he live? I’m honestly not sure. He seems pretty charbroiled when he collapses in the lobby—how he even got to the lobby, I’ll never understand—but Devil never shows us a death-glaze either, so I’m honestly not sure if he’s supposed to survive or not. As you’ll soon note, Devil leaves a few such things up in the air.
Back in the elevator: Hot Young Brunette no longer trusts the Enigmatic Once-Marine . . . I honestly have no idea why . . . so she’s sidled up next to Claustrophobic Security Guard. This is unfortunate because Bowden suspects that CSG (who’s only a temp here on his first day) is actually a contract killer who’s been hired to murder Hot Young Brunette for being an unfaithful whore.
Is CSG a contract killer? Maybe? It doesn’t really matter, I guess, because the end result is the same: he gets his head twisted all the way around and is no longer a threat to anybody. Hot Young Brunette and Enigmatic Once-Marine face off, each armed with a shard of glass. Bowden thinks that the bad guy is EOM because he’s the only one who didn’t sign in (and also has mysteriously left a bag of tools stashed inside the restroom) but it’s not EOM or HYB. It’s BOL or rather, SDBOL—Supposedly Dead Bitchy Older Lady.
Turns out, Bowden made a mistake. He assumed the SDBOL was Jane Kowski, one of the names on the sign-in sheet. However, this mysterious girl who’s been trying to get inside the building for half the movie tells him that EOM is actually Tony Janekowski, her fiancee. She was supposed to pick up his bag of tools (not a euphemism) since he didn’t want to take them into his job interview. I’m curious to know what job Janekowski’s applying for, myself, considering he is not in what I would consider good interview clothes.
(Also, this is what you get for having shitty penmanship, people: you will be mistaken for the Devil. Crap. I’m screwed.)
It’s important that Fiancee has shown up, because according to Ramirez, the Devil’s last victim is always killed in front of the person who loves them. Why? “Because it will make cynics of them all.” What? That’s just dumb. The whole thing’s about as arbitrary as the stupid “it-all-begins-with-a-suicide” rule.
And I must add that while I didn’t specifically call SDBOL, I did say fairly early on that one of the dead people could easily still be the Devil, as the Devil is . . . well . . . not exactly bound by mundane means, you know? I was kind of hoping for Annoying Sales Guy, myself, but I like SDBOL. She kind of reminds me of Piper Laurie from The Faculty.
Anyway, before The Devil reveals herself, Hot Young Brunette gets part of her neck sliced open. EOM seems pretty upset about this and tries to stem the bleeding, but I’m not sure if he’s successful, since HYB’s fate is about as open-ended as Lustig’s. (She gets a sort of death-glaze look, but she’s still making choking noises at the same time, so who knows?) SDBOL comes back to life, so to speak, now sporting creepy black contacts. EOM looks appropriately freaked the fuck out. He offers to trade his life for the girl’s, but SDBOL—well, let’s just call her the Devil now—says he’s in no position to deal.
Dead Dwight’s walkie talkie somehow falls into the elevator, and EOM uses his last few precious moments to confess his sins to Detective Bowden. And what did EOM do that caused him to be in this elevator today? Well, he was the driver in the hit and run that killed Detective Bowden’s family (not that EOM knows just who he’s confessing to). While Bowden stands there looking like a train just hit him, the Devil is annoyed because she can’t take EOM now that he’s confessed. This is one of those religious thing that’s always bothered me on a personal level—I have some problems with how people can use repenting as a take-back or a do-over—but it’s consistent enough with the mythology, so it works for me in the story.
The elevator is opened and the Devil disappears. Detective Bowden offers to give EOL a ride to the police station, I think, and tells him on the drive over that it was his family that was killed. (Again, on Bethlehem Pike. Subtle, guys. Real subtle.) Bowden then says he forgives EOL, and we end the film on Ramirez’s BS voiceover: “After my mother would finish her story, she would always comfort us. ‘Don’t worry,’ she’d say. ‘If the Devil is real, then God must be real, too.’”
—and I could get into a whole long spiel about why I don’t think that reasoning makes any kind of sense whatsoever, and I hate when people say that in movies like it’s fucking law that if you believe in one, you have to believe in the other, but let’s just continue with our analysis of the film, shall we? It’s already getting mildly wordy as is—
I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how I want to fix Devil. It’s not entirely without merit; it’s just . . . vexing. Of course, getting rid of the supernatural element would immediately take away the ridiculous amount of pure, unintentional cheese that this movie is wrapped in, but then your whole story changes, and I actually kind of like the whole “who-is-the-Devil” murder mystery . . . even though I can’t help but wonder why the Devil doesn’t have anything better to do, and if he couldn’t be just a touch more inconspicuous about his actions. I mean, I get the Devil isn’t worried about being arrested anytime soon, but seriously, dude. Showboat a little more. Honestly.
I think the only way to fix Devil is to try and distance it a bit from the myth that originally inspired it. Instead of having some nutjob religious security guard coming to the bizarre conclusion that the Devil is behind everything, just have the security and police be baffled by images and events that cannot be explained by any natural means. The audience would know that something supernatural is up but not exactly what, and when Devil pops up at the end and says, “You know who I am,” you just would put it together naturally without ever having to say the word “devil.” I think that’s the only way I could see making this story work.
Although, if you go that way, I think a change in title might also become necessary.
Some decent acting and okay ideas, but cheesy, atrocious writing that cannot be ignored.
If you don’t want to the Devil to kill you, don’t be an asshole. Or just repent at the very last minute. Oooh, or, OR . . .