The Dowdles (that would be director John Erick and producing brother Drew, who seemingly wear differently credited hats yet share much of the day-to-day work like the Coens), are a couple of filmmakers who are really due some major success. Their first feature, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, received a fair amount of critical acclaim, but its distributor made the inane mistake of insisting on selling it as a legitimate documentary. Initial audiences, in a post Blair Witch Project world, became furious and three years later it continues to sit on a shelf while execs bide their time trying to figure out the obvious, to give it a release as a normal narrative film. Their follow-up, Quarantine, was a remarkably well-made re-telling of Spanish horror film [Rec], but wasn’t hugely successful partly because of its genre, partly because of loyalists’ ire, and partly as a result of a lack of star power. And now here they are saddled with the already-ridiculed M. Night Shyamalan-produced Devil.
First things first; the film is far better than you’d think from trailers and previews. The whole idea seems a bit ludicrous; five people trapped in an elevator, and as the body count starts to rise, it’s revealed that one of them is the devil. Considering that the devil is also stuck in the elevator and has nowhere to run, the whole concept looks like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. But there’s a lot more going on in the script than just that; it treads the kind of thematic ground of The Twilight Zone, and it’s finally a morality play at heart that achieves much of its success from the ways it asks its questions and builds its arguments.
But M. Night Shyamalan isn’t doing himself any favors by calling this film the first in a thematic series under the moniker of “The Night Chronicles.” At first glance it might seem an apt name for a horror/suspense series, but then you realize that the “Night” of “The Night Chronicles” has less to do with being a spooky nomenclature and more to do with trumpeting Shyamalan’s ego by wearing his name. Can you imagine any other filmmaker doing this? Would Scorsese release a string of executive produced films called “The Marty Chronicles?” M. Night’s ego is further on display in the film as he provides a Serling-esque voiceover. First of all, he doesn’t have the voice for it, and it doesn’t create a mood the way Serling’s voice did; it just feels like another ego-driven fingerprint. Secondly, the content of the dialogue itself borders on the hokey, and actually undermines the suspense that the rest of the film is creating. All of this is certainly ammunition for the Shyamalan haters who loathed the scene in Lady in the Water where the critic was eaten, and pointed to it as evidence of an out-of-control, self-congratulatory, and self-aggrandizing personality. The final Shyamalan element that serves to undermine the script is the inclusion of a conservatively religious Latino security guard character who spouts off periodically about superstitions and myths. Just like Stephen King tends to rely on an elderly, magical black man when he has nowhere else to go, Shyamalan keeps creating these conservative religious characters that function as a mouthpiece for himself, informing the audience that we’ve become apathetic in our lifestyle and that we shouldn’t ignore the mythologies, folklore and superstitions that are becoming our unspoken heritage. It’s not that Shyamalan is wrong, or that this thematic element can’t be powerful; but the way Shyamalan relies on it so heavily and includes it so overtly undermines the narrative and transforms it into self-parody.
All of which is to say, that Devil would have been even better off with far less of Shyamalan’s involvement. But apart from Shyamalan’s obvious influence, Brian Nelson has crafted a highly-functioning script that bounces along hitting all the right notes, create tension while building story, employing quite a bit of viewer shorthand along the way in a credit to the audience, and organically exploring human behavior and character motivation with the kinds of nuances that has always been the stock-in-trade of the likes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The cast, headed by Chris Messina as a police detective brought in to lead the investigation once one of the women is mysteriously slashed inside the stuck elevator, is a solid cast of working actors who may not be household names, but who have the acting chops to pull off the material and shepherd it along.
Between their adept direction of the actors, managing of M. Night’s involvement, and capably keeping a somewhat limited story functional and even, at times, compelling; the Dowdles have added another success to their scorecard. Here’s hoping they’re soon able to find a future project free of third-party elements working against them; they deserve it and they’ve sure as hell earned it by now.