While it’s not much of a rave, as supernatural elevator films go, Devil, from Quarantine director John Erick Dowdle, likely hangs near the top floor. Not that it has a lot of competition – Dick Mass’s possessed elevator on the rampage tale from the Netherlands, De Lift, and its 2001 American remake The Shaft are the only other titles that leap to mind. Perhaps wisely, in this case, the elevator itself isn’t the real source of menace.
This film’s plot, borrowing from classic thrillers like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, couldn’t be simpler – a widowed detective (Chris Messina) investigating an apparent suicide is led to a high-rise office tower. There, he attempts to unravel the mystery behind a group of five seemingly random strangers (played by Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine and entertaining comic relief Geoffrey Arend), trapped in an unmovable elevator. As the title suggests, Mephistopheles may be lurking among them, pulling their strings and causing them to turn on one another.
Blackouts occur and odd sounds and struggles are audible before the elevator lights turn on, revealing bizarre injuries. This naturally fuels tension and distrust between the passengers as more literally damning character information is revealed. Before long, there isn’t much space to stand as a result of the growing body count. The claustrophobic setting is enhanced further by moody cinematography from Oscar-winner Tak Fujimoto (Silence of the Lambs) and a chilling, string-filled score by Fernando Velázquez (The Orphanage), recalling James Newton Howard’s work on earlier M. Night Shyamalan features.
While efficiently told, Devil’s biggest problem might be that it seems just a little too slight as a full-length feature, even at 80 minutes (including end credits). The script from Brian Nelson (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) often takes viewers out of the elevator to follow not only Messina’s detective and his initial investigation, but a pair of guards and elevator electrician. A very funny, perpetually baffled Matt Craven is excellent as building security, but some of the material feels unnecessary to the main plotline. The same goes for his partner, played by Jacob Vargas, whose expository narration seems a bit heavy-handed. Ultimately, this is a tale that feels like an episode of the classic Rod Serling series “Night Gallery” and would work more efficiently at 50 minutes.
Violence is kept mostly off screen. There are few real jolts, but the film does generate some authentic moments of tension and creepiness. This is particularly apparent during the urgent last act, as emergency crews race to break into the elevator while the final survivors come to fatal blows. The reveal of the titular character is also a highlight, via effectively jarring photography, chilling appearance alteration and voice modulation.
No doubt the recent internet and critical drubbing producer Shyamalan has received is the real reason Universal Pictures chose not to pre-screen this title to critics before release. As the first episode of “The Night Chronicles” anthology series (a giant number 1 appears at the beginning so that you can keep track), Devil is a passable start. It is far from perfect (and strangely enough does not take place at night, by estimation it’s more of an “Afternoon Chronicle”), but at least leaves viewers open to the idea of future franchise entries.
3 out of 5