Producer M. Night Shyamalan's "Devil" Offers So-So Scares

Here's the scene that, perhaps unfairly, will ultimately come to define Devil for many viewers: A security guard needs to convince a cop that a series of nasty accidents plaguing a Philadelphia high-rise is actually the work of Satan. He grabs a piece of jellied toast, drops it, and freaks out when it lands jelly-side-down; after all, everybody knows that breakfast and/or carpet defilement is one of Lucifer's signature tricks, so the guard has just supplied irrefutable proof that the Prince of Darkness is somewhere in the building. (Hint: He's in the elevator.)

It's hard to tell if this M. Night Shyamalan-produced supernatural thriller is poking fun at its own hokey contrivances, or if it's actually playing it straight. Either way, it's hard to bounce back from that sort of thing. To its enormous credit, Devil almost does. Thanks to John Erick Dowdle's slick, assured direction and a charismatic turn from Chris Messina as the beleaguered cop assigned to solve what is essentially a locked-room mystery, the film is entertaining enough to earn a cautious recommendation. If you tend to enjoy Shyamalan's films, you'll find plenty to like about Devil. Everyone else should stay as far away as possible—he didn't write or direct, but this tale of five strangers trapped in an elevator is a Shyamalan film to the core.

Clocking in at a trim 80 minutes, Devil doesn't waste much time getting the aforementioned strangers into their deadly predicament. The characters are drawn in broad strokes—there's a sleazy mattress salesman, a crotchety granny, a nervous security guard, a brooding mechanic, and a snooty young woman. As you surely know from the movie's aggressive marketing campaign, one of them just might be Old Scratch himself. The elevator stalls, tempers rise, and things head south in a hurry. Meanwhile, a spiritually embattled police detective, on site to investigate a freaky suicide, is called in when the elevator camera broadcasts the aftermath of what appears to be a violent assault. Detective Bowden soon finds himself in the midst of an impromptu murder investigation with a rapidly dwindling pool of suspects. Someone in the elevator is a killer, but who?

Since every film critic and pop-culture blogger in the world has already sucked the sport out of Shyamalan-bashing, let us take the road less snarky and simply acknowledge the fact that, for most moviegoers, the famously uppity auteur's name does not inspire confidence. So it's probably a good thing that, this time around, he only contributed the story. Devil is the first installment in The Night Chronicles, a series of films that will see Shyamalan turning his ideas over to promising young genre filmmakers. This time, scripting duties fell to Brian Nelson, who wrote the 2005 skin-crawler Hard Candy. Try as he might, Nelson never manages to wring much drama from the elevator scenes. To some extent, the problem is inherent to the concept—since we can't know much about the background of the five strangers, they never feel like flesh-and-blood people. And since we need to suspect each of them of being Satan, none of them are even remotely likeable. We don't care when they die, however horribly.

Things get better when the action is centered on Bowden. In spite of a few creepily effective moments, Devil doesn't really work as a horror film. The scares are just too repetitive and predictable to be, well, scary. It makes for a reasonably entertaining supernatural mystery, though, if you can stomach the schlock. Dowdle keeps things moving along at a brisk pace as Bowden frantically coordinates rescue efforts while trying to learn as much as he can about the people trapped in the elevator. There are even a few surprises along the way as the viewer's assumptions are routinely upended. And, in case you're wondering, yes, there's a twist; no, I won't spoil it for you; and yes, it's vintage Shyamalan. Take that however you will.

In the end, this Devil is easily damned with faint praise. It's not the train wreck most were expecting it to be, and it's the best thing to bear Shyamalan's name in some time. It doesn't herald a return to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable form, but it's a step in the right direction. If you can switch off your brain for an hour and 20 minutes and take it for what it is—a big old cornball of Shyamalan's signboard spirituality by way of a lesser Twilight Zone effort—it's a fun, if quickly forgettable, movie.