Silver Screen: Devil ***
The ridiculous but entertaining Devil isn't exactly a high-concept movie-- at best it's medium-concept, although said concept does come from the Master of Disappointment himself, M. Night Shyamalan. The concept in question: Five strangers are trapped together on an elevator, and one of them is mean mister Mephistopheles himself.
That silly premise is introduced with a laugh, which is appropriate. A pair of security guards (Jacob Vargas and Matt Craven) watches on the video monitor as the elevator stalls, stranding the mysterious quintet of passengers. Vargas's superstitious Catholic character first utters the suggestion, based on stories his grandmother told him about how Beelzebub operates. Everyone in the control room laughs (as did the most of the audience in the theater); it's a weird leap in logic to make.
But once the initial absurdity of the idea settles in, director John Erick Dowdle (who previously helmed the close-quarters horror movie Quarantine) is able to play out perhaps the most confined locked-room mystery of all time.
The passengers on the elevator include a smarmy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a mean old woman (Jenny O'Hara), a trembling waif (Bojana Novakovic), a new security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), and a hostile former soldier whose reason for being in the building is unknown (Logan Marshall-Green). Hostilities between them begin almost immediately when the guard's claustrophobia kicks in and the salesman hits on the young girl. Then, during a brief power outage, our ingé nue is wounded -- seemingly bitten in the dark. Tempers continue to flare and the power keeps flickering until at last, during one of the brief blackouts, one of them is killed.
All the while a police detective with a haunted past (Chris Messina) is working with the building's security force to find a way into the express elevator before anyone else can be killed. Despite being watched by our hero and surrounded by dozens of police, however, the surviving passengers are stranded in what starts off as a tiny room and what becomes a large coffin.
Shyamalan didn't write or direct Devil, he only wrote the story, but his fingerprints are all over it, from the needless set of rules the Dark Prince must abide by to the (admittedly muted) final twist to the too-tidy moral at the end.
The difference between this and a standard Shyamalan project, though, is that unlike, say, The Happening or The Village, this isn't humorless, grandiose, and overwrought. What Dowdle seems to understand that Shyamalan doesn't-- other than how to direct actors-- is that most of M. Night's ideas are perfectly suited to cheap, dirty fun. So Dowdle keeps the running time at a lean eighty-five minutes and never loses sight of the fact that he's essentially making a long Twilight Zone episode.
The result is suitably satisfying. Though there are no marquee names present, the cast is made up of a group of competent character actors who all do fine work. They make the often awkward dialogue palatable and, through the strength of their performances, help carry the film through its weakest moments of execution (the kill scenes, which always take place in total darkness, with only sound effects to guide the way, quickly grow tiresome). Devil never attains the pervasive sense of claustrophobia it seems eager to impart, nor does its simplistic moral hit home with the ironic force of a Rod Serling signoff, but as spartan scary movies go, it delivers.