(by Dustin Putman
"Devil" opens with pitch-perfect innovation, the main titles playing out over a dizzyingly ominous aerial montage of downtown Philadelphia's bridges and high-rises turned 180 degrees upside down. The effect is so simple and so practical, yet it's a spark of genius—a harbinger of evil as well as an inspired visual flourish that outdoes anything found in the recent overrated Christopher Nolan dream fantasy "Inception." For the next ten minutes, the film keeps its grimly effective promise, brandishing several more terrific shots—one involving a man on a roof carelessly chasing his hat toward a building's cliff, and another of a brooding storm approaching the city as seen from the broken window where a man previously jumped to his death. Sadly, once the plot in earnest gets underway, "Devil" goes downhill fast, as if an entirely different—and inferior—filmmaker has taken over the job from a master craftsman. Article continues below
On the same morning that an anguished employee commits suicide by hurling himself out the window of a skyscraper at the fitting address of 333 Locust St., five strangers—a mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a security guard temp (Bokeem Woodbine), a well-off businesswoman (Bojana Novakovic), a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), and an elderly pick-pocket (Jenny O'Hara)—become trapped on a malfunctioning elevator. When one of them is found murdered following a brief blackout, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), still struggling to come to terms with the deaths of his wife and child in a hit-and-run accident, is called to investigate. Soon, the entrapped people will dwindle down further, mysteriously being killed one by one. After spotting what looks to be a demonic image superimposed over the elevator's surveillance recording, religious building officer Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) insists one of them is the devil himself, come to take the lives of the other four. He might not be as crazy as he sounds.
The first film in "The Night Chronicles" series (a new collection of genre films produced and based on story ideas by M. Night Shyamalan), "Devil" starts with a great idea and then does little with it. Director John Erick Dowdle did a fine job capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere of an apartment building in lockdown with 2008's "Quarantine," but the even tighter confines of an elevator elude him. Save for the surveillance shots, the camera moves too close to its five subjects and fails to properly portray their personal space and position in relation to their fellow passengers. With all of the characters defined by one or two traits each, they never rise above strict types. Though their lives are at stake, director Dowdle and screenwriter Brian Nelson (2007's "30 Days of Night") do not suitably capture the grave danger they're facing. Even worse, repetition sets in, the narrative darting from inert scenes where the authorities stand around and do next to nothing to instances where the lights go out and another person falls victim to the devil amongst them. As inventive as the aforementioned opening sequence is, little of that carries over to the elevator-set business, which gives the imperiled quintet nothing to do but wait their turn to either die or reveal themselves as an evil force.
The performances are workmanlike, with Chris Messina (2009's "Away We Go") leading the pack as Detective Bowden, a recovering alcoholic who has been through enough tragedy to know hell sometimes exists on earth. As the film moves rather rapidly toward its multiple climactic reveals, all of them acceptable if not exactly surprising, the momentum of the beginning sequences evaporates. Scene after would-be scare scene leaves the viewer cold and antsy, wishing for a single successful fright or instance of suspense that never comes. The constraints of the PG-13 rating prove to be another hindrance, keeping its makers from truly exploring the premise free of inhibitions and letting their imaginations run wild.
If "Devil" opens with a bang—and it does—the proceeding seventy minutes are comparable to a deflating whimper. Audiences searching for a similar minimalist thriller primarily set in a single location that thoroughly rattles one's emotions would do better to seek out 2010's air-gaspingly, teeth-clatteringly intense "Frozen," stranding three sympathetically-developed college students in freezing-cold temperatures when they get stuck on a ski lift. "Devil" isn't anywhere in that same league, going through the one-note motions and ultimately becoming something no horror movie should be: boring. Straining logic, for as long as the elevator is stuck, barely any help tries to come to their rescue and the employees within the building, of which there must be thousands, conveniently vanish from view. Yes, it's admirable for its fable-like tone—the story is narrated by Ramirez as he recounts stories of light and darkness his grandmother used to tell him as a child—but "Devil" is otherwise wasteful of its clear potential. Those main credits, though—what a doozy.