For all the trash talking that I've engaged in over the years concerning the rapidly deteriorating film career of M. Night Shyamalan, I've always found something to enjoy in his films, even if the TWIST! moments can ruin the entire experience. It took ninety minutes and a cartoon adaptation to make me hope that no studio gives the man the time of day ever again (however, in all his bouncing around, Lionsgate has yet to be behind one of his films. Shyamalan, you know who to solicit next!).
It took about eighty minutes for me to fall right back into this abusive relationship. I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a well-executed horror film, even if it isn't all too original. The genre is perfect for Shyamalan's talents, as his greatest works have been in the suspense thriller and horror genres. The further he ventures away from these roots, the more and more we realize exactly how few tricks this pony has. Written by Brian Nelson from a Shyamalan story, and directed by John Erick Dowdle, the succinctly titled 'Devil' reminded me to stop demonizing the man who had brought such pleasure spiked with pain in my cinematic obsession. There may still be something left in the tank, though it may be best if the truck is driven by someone who can see past his own nose.
The plot is fairly basic, and is, in a sense, the antithesis of the found footage phenomena that has produced some amazingly successful films recently. Five strangers (three men and two women) are trapped in elevator 6 in a massive building in Philadelphia. While a superstitious security guarg and his partner try to figure out what is going on inside, a cop is investigating a suicide that may have happened at the same building. As tensions mount in the precarious predicament, a body count begins to rise. There is no escape from elevator 6 for the five who entered it, and anyone on the outside who tries to rescue them may meet a cruel, early demise. The Devil is on Earth, disguised as a human, and the Devil just so happens to be on that elevator to lay claim to the souls he considers his to take.
There's no doubt that there will be a fairly large outrage and catcalls concerning credibility from the moment the arbitrary star rating for this review was seen. 'Devil' is a love it or hate it affair, with very little middle ground (ironically, on Rotten Tomatoes, critics were evenly split). There is no arguing otherwise, this is not the film for everyone. Some going into this short piece of voyeuristic procedural meets religious thriller will find fault in the pacing, acting, or even basic premise of the film. Many will claim it has no scares whatsoever, and that it was a massive waste of time. Others will claim it is oddly familiar, since it does openly (and admittedly) parallel a seventy year old Agatha Christie novel.
Despite it all, there will be those who enjoy this film for what it is, and I'm among them. No, it's nowhere near the glory day(s) of Shyamalan past, but it is an indicator that there may still be some water in this well that seemingly ran dry in recent years. Any horror film works only if the audience believes in what they're seeing, and most people have been educated of a Devil-esque character, through religion or mythology, so it already has that leg up. We're given three sides of a story that eventually converge: the people trapped in the elevator, the security officer who immediately recognizes the story of "The Devil's Meeting," and the police, who immediately rule out superstition and only work on what they actually can see and prove. Amazingly, all three aspects work, and when they slowly come together, the characters slightly evolve, and so does our experience. The multiple arcs also give naysayers and believers alike something to enjoy, and enough characters that at least someone may seem somewhat relatable.
Being trapped in a confined area, invoking claustrophobia, many of us know that feeling, and being stuck with complete strangers, let alone ones that don't seem on the up and up, eventually potentially dangerous, that portion of the film is its strength. It's funny, really, watching the film actually mimics real life quite well: the lack of concern for each other, to the point that they'd not even look the others in the eyes or even face each other, then with the introduction of doubt and mistrust, they're stuck, incapable of turning their eyes away. The constant light flickering, and prolonged moments of darkness add the tension and fear in characters and viewers alike, while we only get a couple quick horror flashes, you know, those moments where something wasn't there but suddenly is. Typical shock horror, basically, but used so sparingly that it doesn't wear out its welcome, as it did in 'The Haunting in Connecticut.'
The police element of the film works because it's somewhat believable, and by the books, though there is one thing that left me groaning, not in the good way, and that is one of the major plot twists in the film, which may ruin the film for those who haven't seen it. Suffice to say, it's the moment where the reason as to why one of the five passengers on the elevator is in there to pay for his/her sins, and it's a bit too coincidental for my taste. We're talking about a cop who keeps police evidence in his wallet, so that it can decay and become worthless to any case (seriously, what gives with that?!), a stretch that makes the incorporation of the embodiment of evil seem logical.
'Devil' was a financial success theatrically, which is more than we can say for a few other Shyamalan films, even if it has left audiences and critics mixed. It moves along at a rapid pace, lingering only when necessary, and it gives enough twists and turns in the simple story that it opens the door for repeated viewings to get more out of the experience knowing the outcome of the film, what to look for. Going into this film, don't expect another 'Sixth Sense,' and don't expect a perfectly executed taut thriller. Go in with low expectations (shouldn't be too hard by now, right?), and see if the film can grip you. If it doesn't, at least it wasn't three hours you'll never get back.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Devil' comes to Blu-ray on a BD50 disc housed in a standard (non-eco) keepcase. While the packaging has no indication, my LG BH100 confirmed that it is Region A/B/C. I encountered no pre-menu trailers, though the presence of BD-Live means that some viewers will experience the "constantly updated" advertisements that will slow down load times. The disc itself is a step away from the ugly clear (sans art) with blue lettering phase that Universal has used for about a year now, as it is somewhat inverted, heavy on blue. There is no slipcover or any form of alternative art or packaging for this title.
Universal brings 'Devil' to Blu-ray with a VC-1 1080p encode in the film's natural 2.35:1 framing. The end result is less than pretty. The film may be 100 percent authentic and accurate to its source, but it does not translate all that well in high def. The opening (upside down city flyby) has tint issues and some light aliasing, but we can forgive that. What we can't forgive is the constant, habitual, borderline dominating amounts of crush going on in the picture. Hair goes into a blur. Panels and clothing and shadows and everything can just become one nasty mess. Black levels are incredibly ugly, and that's putting it politely. Textures are nice, on the moments that aren't blown out from what feels like wonky, overblown contrast levels. The grain level does not deter any detail levels, but the blacks most certainly do. The problems with this film are not isolated to the interior shots of the elevator, as they are found in random other shots featuring the police and security crew as well. Just don't expect much. The Devil's in the details, and it screwed them all up.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for 'Devil' is quite the highlight. Going in, I really had low, low, low expectations, but this film actually has a pleasant and active sound design, and a very strong, effective track. Bass levels were somewhat underwhelming, and dialogue, while clear, in the elevator never really felt all that confined, sounding as though it were spoken in wide open spaces. However, the way the score separates through the channels, the very light, frequently used ambient effects through the rear speakers, and the great use of localization effects (utilized quite frequently) make this one worth a watch for the audio alone. When the elevator shifts, shakes, or stops, the film truly puts you in the middle of the box. You can't help but feel kind of creeped out by the sound here. I'd call that effective. It's not perfect, and it's certainly not demo material, but 'Devil' is an absolute winner for its audio.
The slate of extras on this release feels like they were culled from a few webisode advertisements. That's not a good thing.
'Devil' isn't for everyone. You don't have to believe in Satan, God, or the Bible to appreciate the film, though a bit of religious knowledge or belief may help amplify the experience. It's a simple enough horror story, lacking in originality, but making up for it with its thoroughness. The Blu-ray release features troubled video, great audio, and a pretty boring, EPK pile of extras. This one is worth a look, but may not be the wisest blind buy.