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I really wish adding some context to this review would somehow redeem my time spent watching the irredeemable Devil. Maybe by saying I was already kinda ticked that I had to sit through eight trailers at what was touted as an “advanced screening” that was supposed to start at 11:59 pm and instead started at 12:22 am would justify the surly taste in my cinematic palette after being subjected to this banal attempt at Christian horror. I would like to be wrong and let you know that this movie is worth your time….but that is not the case.

Devil is cursed with two factors that ultimately doom its chance at salvation. First, Universal Pictures has decided to not only bump up its release date from February of next year to right now, but with no advance screenings for critics. It’s that good. Second, the film is being marketed as “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan," an audacious mind-boggling way to sell a film considering that this is the same mind that dropped The Last Airbender on us. Whoever slapped that line on the poster should be slapped.

Admittedly, the trailer may have sparked interest, but this is more proof that trailers cannot be trusted. We already know that they either show all the parts worth seeing or contain scenes that never make the final cut. Who knows what will happen with the next two installments of The Night Chronicles? (Yes, unfortunately, this is the first of three.)

It’s too bad, really, since the premise has a certain Twilight Zone draw to it that could’ve provided a modern creepy character-driven fable.

Five strangers walk into an elevator in a Philadelphia skyscraper as a foreboding storm builds along the horizon. It sounds like the set-up for a joke, but these five are actually the pawns in this macabre tale. There’s a shifty mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a belligerent old lady (Jenny O’Hara), a newly hired temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a sleazy mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend) and a self-entitled woman (Bojana Novakovic).

Their car comes to an abrupt halt midway up and it doesn’t take long for them get irritable with each other as they give in to their own fears. Soon the lights start to flicker and then fade in and out altogether and then it becomes obvious they are not alone. There is something in there with them, attacking them, toying with them, making them lash out at each other and taking them out one by one.

We are not the only witnesses to the happenings inside the car. The elevator’s camera can apparently see everything and is being monitored by the building security. Two guards, the calm and concerned Lustig (Matt Craven) and the overtly religious Vincent (Jacob Vargas), notice the car has stopped and reads ”under maintainance." They attempt to calm and assure the irritable passengers that help is on the way. Though they can see and communicate to the passengers on their monitors, they cannot hear them, making the situation all the more frustrating for those trapped.

When one of the five is attacked from behind after a power fade, the guards call the police. Outside dealing with an apparent suicide jumper from the same building, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), answers the call and takes charge, trying his best to rescue these five people before they kill themselves.

Despite digging up some suspicious history on each individual, Bowden soon realizes there’s more going on here than just the instability of human nature. With no visual evidence or natural explanation available to him, he’s inclined to agree with the religious rantings of Vargas, who is certain that Satan himself is toying with these trapped souls.

All they can do is watch the bloody body count rise in the tight transport that has now become a death trap. It soon becomes clear, though, that there may be a reason that Vargas and Bowden are observing these tragic events together.

Shyamalan may not have directed this wanna-be B-movie thriller, but it is clearly tainted by him. His trademark forced scares, insulting exposition and pretentious, heavy-handed message is present from start to finish.

Particularly the finish, where the message of forgiveness is hammered into our already throbbing heads. It’s too bad that screenwriter, Brian Nelson (co-writer of 30 Days of Night) couldn’t filter the forced themes present here and provide a script that would allow the audience to work a little more, maybe even glean a revelation or two from subtlety instead of the blunt drama that I was assaulted with.

It’s also a shame that this script doesn’t offer more substance, since the movie’s flatness can’t be blamed on the actors. They all seem quite capable, yet they are subject here to a script that could have been written by a Youth Group Leader possibly trying to urbanize a parable.

Unfortunately, the first mistake the screenwriters and director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) make is to include a narrator that is compelled to walk us through the events shot by shot. At first, the voice of the narrator sounded to me like M. Night (which would not have surprised me), but then it became clear that it is Vargas who is recollecting a childhood story his mother told him.

The story is a mysterious myth called The Devil’s Meeting, in which the Devil appears to sinners and tortures them before dragging them to Hell, always kicking off with a suicide. An interesting idea but I could’ve done without someone spelling that out for me. Maybe one of the trapped passengers should have mentioned such a story as a way of explaining their hellish situation.

At least, the Dowdle brothers manage to maintain the tension for such a confined setting, making the most out of the characters' short time in this elevator. This would have been a stronger character examination if the camera didn’t leave the elevator after the victims entered. We could have been stuck in there with them instead of going back and forth to Bowden and the guards.

While Messina (Away We Go) is good as Bowden and his character has a heart-wrenching emotional arc (which echoes Shyamalan’s Signs), it feels like it takes away from the attempt at terror inside the elevator. To really sell something like inescapable entrapment, you have to keep the audience trapped as well. The upcoming film Buried gets it; why can’t these filmmakers?

Are there some shocks? Sure. But more often than not, the audience will be chuckling instead of shrieking. It could be that viewers have seen it all and they are hard to scare in their seats but giving something intelligent, real and well, frightening, always helps. It just feels like we’ve seen all these characters before and that’s an important factor since it’s people who often scare us more than the settings in which they are in.

They say the devil is in the details but in this Devil, the details are flimsy, flat and failed. No twist or misdirection could have prevented such obviousness and each attempt to outsmart the audience is just insulting. Maybe the film required more than just 80 minutes to really sell such a tale. Either that or strongly prune and edit the script to deliver a taut, Alfred Hitchcock Presents feel to really leave us with something to think about.

In the best Twilight Zone episodes, it is always difficult to see right away who is the antagonist or what will be learned by the protagonist. It is so frustrating that both elements are all too obvious here. A mind is a terrible thing to waste and if M. Night Shyamalan is insistent on wasting our time with his, he can keep his mind to himself.

(This review also appears on David's own website, Keeping It Reel.)

David J. Fowlie

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