The name that most people are associating with the new horror flick Devil is its producer, one M. Night Shyamalan. The auteur behind two great films (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) and several... let's say underwhelming ones (The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water), M. Night has now turned his sights towards producing a series of chillers known as The Night Chronicles, and Devil is officially Chapter 1. It only makes sense that Shyamalan's name would be the one earning the most attention, which leaves director John Dowdle (Quarantine) in an unenviable position indeed. But the name that most genre fans should be focusing on is that of the screenwriter: Brian Nelson -- also known as the guy who penned the excellent script for Hard Candy, and then followed that up by adapting 30 Days of Night for the big screen. And rather well I might add.
As you've no doubt already discovered from the non-stop trailers and commercials, Devil is about five strangers who find themselves stuck in a broken elevator. If that's not scary enough, it seems that every time the lights flicker off for a few minutes... one of the quintet ends up dead. Rather nastily, I might add. But who is the killer? Since you already know the title of the film, one can assume that there is a biblically unpleasant influence exerting itself within the blood-drenched elevator, which does add a little extra spice to the stew. The murders gradually get more elaborate, and of course the survivors are intent on blaming one another.
Meanwhile a surprisingly clever Philadelphia detective roams the building in an effort to figure out A) who these people are, B) why someone might want them all dead, and C) what are all these creepy noises and visions pouring out of the elevator's security cameras?
Bolstered by some lovely Tak Fujimoto cinematography and assisted quite capably by a Fernando Velazquez score, Devil is a supernatural mystery by way of a "gimmick thriller" (like Phone Booth), with just a few dashes of Irwin Allen and Agatha Christie thrown in for good measure. The high-concept but unexpectedly clever screenplay allows Devil to be a scary flick, a claustrophobic whodunit, and a surprisingly well-paced police story all at the same time. Not bad for a flick that runs 80 minutes, end credits included.
The elevator-bound victims are a colorful and well-realized bunch, with Bokeem Woodbine (as a stressed-out security guard) and Geoffrey Arend (as a tacky salesman) the standouts. Also adding some welcome color are Matt Craven and Jacob Vargas as a pair of well-meaning security technicians, while Chris Messina (as the clever detective in charge of the steadily worsening case) is more or less excellent throughout. The actors carries much of the movie on his shoulders, and if Mr. Shyamalan continues his "Night Chronicles," it's my hope that he keeps Detective Bowden around as the central protagonist.
So perhaps if M. Night Shyamalan is planning to work as a producer (and not a writer/director) for a few more years, I'd say that Devil is most definitely a welcome step in the right direction. He's the one who hatched the simple-yet-nifty concept, he's the one who hired Nelson and Dowdle, and he's the one who keeps making my beloved Philadelphia look so damn pretty on film -- so clearly the man still has some skills for scary storytelling. Frankly I think the M. Night still has too much talent to stay "disappointing" forever, and if slight-yet-entertaining matinee-style horror flicks like Devil are what he's focused on, I think that's good news for everyone.