Thursday, March 31, 2011

Now Playing: Devil

“Who are you?” “Today?”

To the credit of all involved with “Devil,” they managed to wring every ounce of tension out of five people trapped in an elevator. That’s it. That’s the story. Oh, wait. Slight twist to this setup: One of the five happens to be the Devil. So, what we’re looking at is how the Devil is out to collect a group of very bad people and the only thing we can do is watch.

The other observers are the police who are investigating a suicide that occurred at the building. As things get stranger and the body count rises, the police and building security realize that something is definitely wrong with one of the passengers. All of this happens in under 90 minutes too, credits and all. The result of such a limited time span and an equally limited budget is a determined focus on core characters to the exclusion of all the normal trappings inherent to this genre.

Usually films like this go off in several directions and refuse to stay in the box, primarily as a way to alleviate the tension. When that happens in Devil, it’s so that we get to know the people in the elevator. Instead of having everyone in the box discuss who they are, what their feelings are for the world at large, etc., we find out about them as the police do. And once we find out their respective MOs, we come to understand why the Devil was drawn to this particular group in the first place.

There isn’t much in the way of mystery either. Once things get going, one of the building security guards begins to spell out the beats of the rest of the film. This isn’t much of a surprise considering that, at times, the film feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. This also isn’t surprising considering writer/producer M. Night Shymalan has been ripping off the show his entire career.

So what is surprising? The effectiveness of good, old fashioned practical effects. The number of special effects shots in the film can be counted on one hands (maybe both). Everything else happens in camera via nifty editing tricks and clever use of sound effects. That’s it. That’s the ballgame. Frankly, I love it when film makers rely more on imagination rather than hurling CGI at the screen and expecting you to be afraid of it.

But the setup is a bit disingenuous. In essence, we’re stuck in a box for 70 minutes or so (excluding the setup and epilogue) with four bad guys and Satan so who is there to root for? Why, I’m so glad you asked. We get to root for the wooden cop trying to rescue the passengers. How wooden might he be? I dubbed him “redwood” right about the time things started going crazy.

I love how simple things like the lights starting to flicker indicate that someone’s about to bite it, and that when things do go dark that the sound effects take center stage. You never see the devil’s handiwork in action, only the results as they bleed out on the floor. The tension is ridiculously high, you’re not sure of the motives of everyone until the end, and even though the major twist is easy to peg about five minutes in, it still delivers a corker of an ending.

On the whole, its brevity definitely works in its favor and as a result Devil is short, but very sweet.

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