It appears to be the month for the high concept thriller, both Frozen and Buried utilised their single (and singular) locations to maximise tension, with the filmmakers finding imaginative ways to remain within the confines of their what-if? scenarios. What they understood is that in order for us to invest on any level with the unfolding action, we need characters that we can if not relate to, then at least empathise with or care about. Isn’t that why we go to watch this kind of film in the first place? To vicariously go on a ride with the onscreen characters? To ask ourselves what we would do in the their situation, to cheer them on when they make a decision we agree with and shout at the screen when they don’t?
Devil’s first but most catastrophic mistake lies in the fact that the characters on screen in no way resemble real people. Not in their actions, their dialogue, the way they relate to each other or their plot-convenient ‘character building’ backstories. These aren’t archetypes, they’re not even stereotypes, and they just about pass muster as monotypes, one-dimensional approximations of people who exist solely to serve the creakily contrived plot mechanics of this tired, derivative and pretty stupid film.
You can see why the pitch was snapped up, “five people in a life, one of them’s the devil” has its’ B-movie possibilities seemingly sewn up. A demonic riff on Louis Malle’s Lift To The Scaffold (1958) or Brit thriller Downtime (1997), a claustrophobic play on the central conceit of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) in which we can’t tell who’s infected (in this case possessed) if we all look the same. Then they wrote it. Well, Brian Nelson wrote it. A quick scan on imdb.com shows the predictable TV credits (this feels more like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits), but also the sole writing credit on Hard Candy (2005). On the evidence presented here, I’m guessing he had a little help with that one.
The film casts it’s net far too wide. Where staying in the lift and focussing on the building tensions between the group could have created intrigue and suspense through character work, instead we’re running around the building looking for clues with a detective determined to work out what’s going on. Given we already know from the title, the tagline and the basso profundo Omen music ridiculously wailing away in the background that one of them is the devil, why are we chasing this bloke around waiting for him to catch up with the plot? I mean, for goodness sake, there’s even a little Spanish fella next to him throughout explaining exactly what’s happening and what’s going to happen next, something about toast and his mother having already downloaded the film when he was a child, passing on to him her profound powers of narration and plot explanation.
From the tedious inverted skyline of the credit sequence to the simplest of cheap scare jump cuts, it’s clear from the start that director John Erick Dowdle has a lot to learn about making a successful horror film. Copying [Rec] (2007) as Quarantine (2008) for the American market doesn’t count, but you’d have thought he’d have learned something about the mechanics of a decent scare from the effective Spanish original. The old line from The Bad And The Beautiful (1952) about how something’s scarier when you don’t see it and have to rely on your imagination is repetitively and poorly executed here. So the lights go out every time someone’s attacked and we see nothing, well I guess it’s cheaper to do it that way. The sound design adds nothing to these scenes and the heavy reliance on musical cues to hide poor direction is just too much of a cop-out.
We’re supposed to be dying to know which character is the devil, but like all of M Night Shyamalan’s output after Unbreakable (2000), it wasn’t even fifteen minutes into the film that I realised that I simply didn’t care.
Devil - 2010 - USA - 80 mins - Dir : John Erick Dowdle