Sunday, October 14, 2012

30 Days of Nightmares #18: DEVIL (2010)

The Story: Five strangers get trapped in an elevator.  One of them is the devil.

Expectations: Low-budget filmmakers tend to gravitate toward stories that take place in confined spaces.  Why?  Usually it's because confined spaces are cheaper.  Sometimes, however, the novelty simply intrigues the filmmaker.  Alfred Hitchcock tested the waters in LIFEBOAT (1944), and Joel Schumacher made it work for him in PHONE BOOTH (2002), working from a story by Larry Cohen (...who originally pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock).  When I first read the synopsis for DEVIL, I assumed that building a story around five people in an elevator was a decision related to budget.  Then I saw the opening credits.

DEVIL is a Universal picture, so not exactly low budget -- as evidenced by the elaborate helicopter shots and the symphonic score at the start of the movie -- and it's based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan.  Once I realized this, I started wondering how I had managed to overlook this movie until now.  I don't remember hearing anything about it when it was released theatrically... which might simply be proof of how oblivious I am to most new movie releases.  Or it might be evidence of how little faith Universal has in M. Night Shyamalan.  I can't help wondering: Did they pointedly give Shyamalan's script to another director (John Erick Dowdle, ust coming off of the relative success of QUARANTINE)?  From a marketing standpoint, that might make some sense -- considering how nasty the backlash against Shyamalan has been in the wake of THE VILLAGE (2004), LADY IN THE WATER (2006), and THE HAPPENING (2008).  He's got more supporters-turned-haters than Obama.

I'll go on the record and say that I remain an M. Night Shyamalan fan.  I had problems with LADY IN THE WATER, but I mostly liked THE VILLAGE and I'm completely baffled by the general contempt for THE HAPPENING.  The only way to explain the level of vitriol is to say that Shyamalan has suffered the fate that a lot of brand-name filmmakers face.  It starts with "Their early stuff was better..." and escalates to "Who do they think they are?"  Shyamalan was praised as the new Hitchcock after THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), and then backed into a corner where all anyone wanted to know was "What's the twist of his new movie going to be?"  Because audiences always go into his films expecting a surprising plot twist, they're rarely surprised.  Everyone thinks they're smarter than M. Night Shyamalan.  But I'd argue (not here, because this is supposed to be a short-form review) that he is still one of the most consistently intriguing brand-name filmmakers working.  Once I saw his name on the credits, I had relatively high hopes for DEVIL.

Reaction: The marketing campaign -- hell, even the title of the film -- boldly and defiantly announces the big "twist."  With that out of the way, the filmmakers can focus on character.  DEVIL is not the type of horror movie you might be expecting based on the title.  It's not THE EXORCIST.  The film has supernatural overtones, but mostly it's a compelling psychological mystery / thriller.  To put it in Hitchockian terms: the supernatural overtones are a MacGuffin... certainly not irrelevant, but not what the movie's really about.  The supernatural context allows the writer to present a psychological thriller as a kind of timeless fable or morality play. 

I suspect viewers will be divided on whether or not this works, but personally I liked the approach.  It reminded me of the scare tactics of Alfred Hitchcock and Larry Cohen -- the way that they ground horror in the most unlikely, everyday settings -- but it also had that sense of compelling otherworldliness that informs Shyamalan's storytelling sensibilities.  In other words, it was familiar enough to draw me in, but different enough to surprise me.

If there's one thing that my month-long horror blogathon is making me aware of, it's that my expectations play a huge role in whether or not I enjoy a film.  Probably that's true for most people, and it's not as simple as saying that we want to get what was sold to us in the marketing campaign.   I bring an awareness of the history of horror movies to anything I see -- I couldn't watch DEVIL without thinking of Hitchcock and Cohen and Shyamalan's previous films -- because what I'm looking for is a film that builds on what I know and love.  I look for evolution in genre storytelling.  I admire filmmakers who know what has come before them, who aren't so arrogant or ignorant that they think they can reinvent the wheel... but who are very good at building new roads.  For me, a movie like DEVIL is a detour in uncanny -- mostly unknown yet hauntingly familiar -- country. 

Most Nightmare-Worthy Moment: This is PG-13 horror, so most of the scares are psychological.  You don't have to be afraid of devil for the movie to work... you just have be capable of fearing the stranger sitting next to you.


  1. I learned of this film from John Kenneth Muir, and really enjoyed the experience.

    Now, just my opinion, and I'm sure others can/will differ with it (which is okay), but THE HAPPENING doesn't work -- for me, anyways. I tried for the longest to analyze why I thought it didn't, only to be frustrated in my attempt to re-watch the film critically. Luckily, someone with a good deal of movie script experience distilled exactly the 'why' of it. I'll refer you, and your readers, to the article below. (YMMV):

    Fixing "The Problem": The Happening

    p.s., I 'liked' THE VILLAGE, but still haven't seen LADY IN THE WATER.

  2. Thanks, Michael! Now I have to re-watch (and maybe review) THE HAPPENING... I might have been so excited to see a big-budget version of THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS that I was more forgiving of "the problems" than I should have been. Sometimes I'll enjoy a movie the first time through, and then absolutely hate it the second time, when I already know what's going to happen. Obviously, great films -- and even good films -- stand the test of time and repeat viewings... To be continued.

  3. Not sure how I overlooked Muir's review, but I'm adding the link here, for those who are following this thread...