Friday, October 21, 2011

30 Days of Fright - 20: Devil

This is the image I sometimes use as an avatar on websites and such, it's a copy of an engraving done by Gustav Dore for an early edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost and it shows Satan wigging the fuck out.

Where do bad folks go when they die? They don't go to Heaven where the angels fly...

Over the years El Diablo has appeared in many guises and in many places, but none as weird as where the bugger popped up in last nights movie.

With a disorientating set of opening credits, Devil (2010) brings us to Philadelphia where we meet a police detective Bowden meeting with his AA sponsor who’s advising him to believe in something bigger than himself and to try to change his anger over the recent hit-and-run death of his family into something more positive. Not happy with this advice Bowden heads off to his day at work.

Which begins with the body of a suicide victim that jumped from a skyscraper window that then landed on a truck which rolled down the street. While Bowden is investigates this, fate conspires to put five people together on an elevator heading up the skyscraper. The five, a mattress salesman, an older woman, a man, a woman, and one of the buildings security guards, are heading to different floors on different business. As the lift climbs it suddenly gets stuck somewhere above the twentieth floor and the occupants start hitting buttons to try to get help.

Two security guards are monitoring the towers CCTV system and spot the elevator that’s stuck and send the maintenance man to check it out. In the close proximity of the elevator the five passengers quickly begin to get on each other’s nerves. The salesman is a bit too chatty, the security guard appears to be claustrophobic, the old woman is scared and loud, the man is a bit edgy, and the woman has all the hallmarks of being a bitch. While the maintenance man struggles to find anything wrong with the lift an assault apparently takes place inside the lift with the woman getting a bloody wound on her back that gets blames on the salesman.

The security guards watching on the monitors call in the police and Bowden responds as he’s right outside. Playing back the video shows that the girl seemed to get the wound out of nowhere. It also shows the image of a demonic face when paused at just the right spot, which one of the more religious guards puts down as being the face of the Devil himself. Setting this notion aside Bowden watches with horror as, when the lights in the lift go out as they sometimes do as maintenance struggle to get to those trapped inside, the salesman is murdered. This causes the rescue effort to escalate and the fire department get involved. But as the rescue proceeds someone else in the lift is killed and everyone, those inside and those watching, realise that no-one is safe as all the key players are somehow linked...

While attending a Coldplay concert these fans encounter the Devil... obviously

I first became aware of this film as I roamed the isles of a local DVD Rental shop and spotted it for rent. I didn’t hire it but I made a mental note to keep an eye out for it when it appeared on TV, as it did this week, so I was looking forward to giving Devil a viewing. As a horror film Devil succeeds in terrifying the audience right from the opening credits as a name appeared there that strikes fear into the heart of any rational movie audience member: M. Night Shyamalan. I saw that name and I blessed myself, for I instantly knew in my now fearful heart that this film was going to be shite and have a silly twist at the end.

I was half right. Well, more like quarter right.

Thankfully, M. Night didn’t direct Devil, so there was a small glimmer of hope from that. Secondly, he didn’t write the screenplay, so things were really starting to look up though he did write the original story, so the chances of a twisty ending were strong.

The story told in Devil is an interesting one and more than hints at a religious subtext. The second security guard who’s watching the monitors serves as narrator for the film but also, seeing as he’s Hispanic and therefore (in the wonderful world of cinema stereotypes) raised in a religious family, he provides a level of expertise and advice as to what might actually be happening with those trapped in the elevator. Though his narration and nuggets of advice we learn that a suicide can prompt the Devil to walk the earth and torment some of the dammed before they get to Hell, which will be soon as he’ll torment them to death. This is not a bad plot device and like so many horrors it will appeal to those with at least a passing understanding of all things Christian, but the suicide part bothers me for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Devil perpetuates a rather old fashioned notion of how certain western religions handle the subject of suicide and the flippant way in which it’s stated that a suicide will invite Satan to Earth is playing just a little too fast and loose with a difficult subject. The really big problem with it though is that the suicide is pretty quickly forgotten once the main event kicks off even though there’s at least one big hint that it was related to what’s taking place in the elevator. The story never comes back to the person who jumped out of the window once the suicide note is read out, even though that note references all things unholy and the victim was clutching Rosary beads when they took the plunge.


That aside the rest of the tale is intriguing enough despite every cliche in the horror-film handbook getting a look in. The way in which the rescue unfolds is believable and grounds the film nicely as supernatural events occur. As those events take place in the elevator, it’s a little hard for the sense of tension to be portrayed in a way that the audience can appreciate as you’re in on what’s really happening while those on the inside think they’re just in the presence of a murderer. The lack of palpable tension is a shame and betrays the more run of the mill approach taken when Devil was being made.

That approach does result in a slick looking film that plays out well. The character of Bowden is one of the few with any sort of explained background and he’s ably played by Chris Messina. We’re supposed to see much of the action in the film through his eyes and for the most part we do, though the audience has a slightly better notion of what’s going on before he does.

M. Night Shyama-lama-ding-dong-ding may have written the original story but once it was out of his hands Devil was turned into a more mainstream and highly entertaining film, and while not all that frightening, a little disrespectful to religion, and ever so slightly racist, it is shockingly entertaining. Devil is movie that tries to make Satan the baddie but in doing so highlights how absurd any ultimate evil would have to be considering what people are capable of doing themselves. This poke in the eye for Old Nick makes Devil more of a film then it probably wanted to be. It also makes it good.

Two Thumbs Firmly Up for Devil

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