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Friday, July 8, 2011
The devil finds work for idle hands (in an elevator)
By KAORI SHOJI
Either the devil is running out of ideas, or he needs some expert coaching from a certain Japanese power company (hint: headquarters in Tokyo). You get a movie with the one-word title "Devil" and almost all that happens is five people getting stuck in an elevator? Pfff.
When the head henchman is less than impressive, you just know that all is not well in the land of hell. Most likely the devil's minions are sleeping on the job, forgetting to stoke the furnace and prod sinners with a pitchfork. They've probably all been laid off and are vacationing in Japan. But I digress.
"Devil" is the first installment in the highly to-doed "The Night Chronicles" of M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," "Signs"), in which he acts as story idea generator and producer, while giving young filmmakers a chance to direct. The likely reality is that Shyamalan — hailed as a genius when he gave the world "The Sixth Sense" back in 1999 — has become a bit of an American horror flick version of Luc Besson, who also no longer directs but oversees the proceedings from (one imagines) a large, upholstered executive's chair.
This is the part where that whispered line from "The Sixth Sense" — "I see dead people" — would be appropriate. Or is that too harsh? The filmmaker who had worked with such A-list notables as Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson is down to a modest budget, forgettable cast and a director who seems unsure how to scare an audience with something as biblically iconic as the devil.
Still, remnants of a time when Shyamalan was the toast of the town remain. His method of painstakingly building that wall of suspense brick by brick and then detonating the whole thing before our very eyes has successfully been passed on to director John Erick Dowdle. So "Devil" does have its moments, recalling that sensation of hearing someone yell in a parking lot, late at night when you're alone. Gulp. And then those moments are gone, and the audience is jerked back to the movie — which hasn't budged from that space where a bunch of people were (and still are) stuck in an elevator.
The story is set where all of Shyamalan's stories are set — in Philadelphia, where the filmmaker was himself raised. The opening aerial shot of downtown, with glittering skyscrapers and the long, snaking train of moving cars, is the first and last taste of spatial freedom you get from the film. The story quickly cuts to the interior of an office-building elevator, and much of the best action scenes are seen through a CCTV camera in the security room. Five people are trapped inside the steel gray box and all voice communications are cut off, though the guards can see what's happening via camera.
At first, no one calls the cops, since everyone is confident the situation will be resolved in half an hour at most. But as tension in the box reaches its peak and blood is shed, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is called in from the local precinct.
Still unable to communicate with the group, Bowden tries to get their IDs. Four are accounted for, but one remains a mystery. And it begins to dawn on Bowden (who himself lost his wife and child under tragic circumstances) that the fifth person could be the devil, roaming the Earth and torturing sinners while they live, before claiming their souls after death.
In the world according to Shyamalan, reality always plays second fiddle to the supernatural — and it's taken for granted that the everyday is strewn with inexplicable and creepy phenomena. Which is a perfectly acceptable premise in a horror story, but Bowden's shift from hard-boiled Philadelphia cop to blatant bible-thumper seems strangely abrupt. What if this unidentifiable person had simply been an illegal alien? (Or an actual alien visiting from an asteroid.)
The sort of logic Bowden employs was fashionable when "The Sixth Sense" was fashionable — more than a decade ago, when end-of-the-world and Judgment Day films abounded. Seen in the present day, the feeling that there are other things to worry about and other issues to contend with enwraps the senses like a wet shower curtain.
Personally, however, I suspect it would be better to be trapped with the devil in a Philadelphia elevator than trapped in a Tokyo elevator in midsummer, smack in the middle of a power blackout. Now that's scary.