Director: Erick Dowdle
Writers: Brian Nelson
Cast: Geoffrey Arend, Matt Craven, Caroline Dhavernas, Logan Marshall-Green, Chris Messina, Bojana Novakovic, Jenny O’Hara, Joshua Peace, Jacob Vargas, and Bokeem Woodbine
M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan has all the markings of an M. Night Shyamalan production, including his name all over the promotional material. The thriller is the first of the Night Chronicles, a series of supernatural yarns conceived by Shyamalan but helmed by less infamous filmmakers. This strikes me as a bit backwards, given his gift for cinematic tension and penchant for stories that seem written by an articulate but sheltered thirteen-year-old. Then again, the man recently adapted someone else’s ideas in The Last Air Bender (2010), and look how that turned out.
It occurs to me Shyamalan’s personal concoctions have all tended toward religious allegory, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan is no exception. Five people get stuck in an elevator: a smarmy salesman (Geoffrey Arend), an ice princess (Bojana Novakovic), a loner (Logan Marshall-Green), an old lady (Jenny O’Hara), and a security guard (Bokeem Woodbine). One of them croaks. Another is the killer. Outside, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), a born-again atheist, tries to solve the case but begins to suspect what we already know from the title. Sounds cool, right? Well, it’s not.
I don’t mean that director John Erick Dowdle squanders the film’s potential. If anything, his slick timing elevates the familiar material, maintaining an eerie atmosphere throughout and adding a touch of self-awareness to some of the goofier moments, like a Hispanic guard (Jacob Vargas) proving the presence of Satan by dropping a piece of toast on the floor. M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan delivers a couple of good scares too. The first time the lights go off and the culprit’s reveal near the end prove particularly effective. In short, my qualms have little to do with the meat-and-potatoes side of production.
Rather, I’m suggesting the concept is an inherent dud. As a murder mystery, the story falls apart because the devil requires neither motive nor physical means, which makes deduction pointless, especially with three-to-one odds just guessing. As a thriller, the movie fails as well because its religious fable requires the people in the elevator to deserve the devil’s visit, and so we spend the whole time waiting for the insufferable jerks to just bite the dust already.
It doesn’t help the characters have the survival instincts of a parched turkey in a rainstorm. Take, for example, the scene in which the loner tries to climb up the elevator shaft. “He’s the killer, and he’s trying to get away” (or something to that effect), exclaims the ice queen, prompting the others to pull him down. Forget that the authorities have him on camera and the building’s been sealed off. Presuming their arbitrary suspicions might pan out, didn’t it occur to anyone they might be safer with the alleged murderer outside their tiny death box?
The building personnel and rescue workers engage in similar acts of convoluted ineptitude. One tries to pick up a torn power cable in a flooded room, using a broomstick instead of turning off the electricity. Another answers his walkie-talkie while climbing down several stories without safety equipment or even a spotter. Meanwhile, firefighters are trying to break through a concrete wall instead of, say, sliding down the elevator shaft without answering their walkie-talkies.
The only person with a modicum of good sense is Bowden, which presents a different problem. A few moral imperfections might have helped sell the filmmakers’ conceit that this guy needs God back in his life. As it is, his behaviour demonstrates too strong a sense of duty and respect to justify a redemption arc, let alone a holy intervention. In other words, whether or not he has faith, Bowden lives by righteous rules, so why would the Almighty allow the deaths of six people, taking away their chance to repent, just to try to get another worshipper? They say God works in mysterious ways, not egomaniacal ones.
Maybe I’m asking too much of characters who belong in a lesser episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s astounding how they can spend the entire eighty-minute runtime explaining their background and motivations, yet still come off hallow. For this, I bestow the mighty bonnet of shame onto screenwriter Brian Nelson, whose dialogue feels so laboured and sanctimonious it borders on unintentional comedy. Consider the final scene in the car, the way the driver spoon feeds the film’s big lesson to the passenger while the narrator does the same to the audience.
I’m trying hard not to jump on the “I hate M. Night Shyamalan” bandwagon here. After all, the writer-director neither wrote nor directed M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan. Besides, say what you will about his twist endings, the man’s an earnest filmmaker with a unique sense of atmosphere. However, when a producer comes up with a story we’ve seen countless times in pulp comics and anthology horror shows and then proudly plasters his name all over the credits, adverts, and posters with complete disregard to his damaged reputation, one can’t help but wonder if the man’s lost his mind of M. Night Shyamalan.