For me, one of 2010’s most memorable cinematic experiences occurred at a packed advance screening for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Not for the movie itself, but for the “Devil” trailer that unspooled beforehand.
You could tell the largely 20-something audience was really into it, grooving on the concept. Then the credit “from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” appeared onscreen, which prompted a collective groan of utter disappointment, itself prompting a round of laughter immediately following.
I’d say, “You had to be there,” but chances are, you’ve had the misfortune of sitting through one or more of the egotistical writer/director’s eight-year string of misfires: “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening” and this summer’s critically reviled “The Last Airbender.”
Lucky for us, Shyamalan is merely the producer of “Devil,” and came up with the idea. The seed is a good one, left to the hands of screenwriter Brian Nelson (“30 Days of Night”) and director John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”) to nurture. Instead of shooting for M. Night’s laughable attempts at profundity, they only aim to make you tense.
In a downtown Philadelphia skyscraper, five strangers enter an elevator. Somewhere on its way up, the ascent abruptly halts. The building’s security guards are able to watch and talk to the increasingly agitated quintet via the box’s built-in system, but the communication runs one way.
That sucks for all parties involved, because when things start happening, they want answers. Every time the lights go out, which is often, something bad is the end result, be it the pretty young woman (Bojana Novakovic, “Edge of Darkness”) being bitten on her back, or “¦ well, I can’t tell you without revealing one of several surprises. The carnage is enough for the religiously paranoid guard (Jacob Vargas, “Death Race”) to suspect the meddling of “el diablo,” at which investigating Detective Bowden (Chris Messina, “Greenberg”) scoffs.
While the script’s jolts are not exactly delivered with megawattage, they play out effectively enough. Whether through budgetary limitations or knowing that what you imagine is scarier than anything he could show you, Dowdle lets all the carnage take place when the screen goes pitch black.
When it comes to gore, the “Devil” isn’t in the details. In fact, it barely qualifies as horror. This is a mystery thriller — even a quasi-cop show. With its scaled-back setting and a no-name cast of character actors, it feels like an excursion into “The Twilight Zone” or, more precisely, Rod Serling’s follow-up series, “Night Gallery.” That’s meant as a compliment, as the television anthology cranked out many a well-oiled episode.
Speaking of, this is the first to appear under Shyamalan’s “The Night Chronicles” banner, a planned series of modestly budgeted flicks for which others will take the reins. Being better than his last four films, the pretty decent “Devil” is a solid enough start. —Rod Lott