“Be sober. Be vigilant; because your adversary, the Devil, walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” – Peter 5:8
With this quotation from Scripture, so commences Devil (2010), the inaugural film in a projected horror trilogy from M. Night Shyamalan entitled “The Night Chronicles.”
All three of the films in this projected cycle concern forces of the supernatural operating in modern day society, and Devil represents a solid starting point for the series
After the title card, the movie opens rather unconventionally with an aerial view of contemporary Philadelphia….upside down.
The inverted image — as simple as it is — makes audiences conscious, from the very first shot, that man’s order (or his sense of order) has been overturned.
This powerful image of an upside-down metropolis, coupled with a bombastic and diabolical-sounding score from Fernando Velázquez, fills one with an immediate sense of foreboding and dread. In other words, a perfect note to start on.
After the portentous opening, Devil dramatizes the tale of a police detective named Bowden (Chris Messina) as he attempts to free five trapped people — a mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), a security guard temp (Bokeem Woodbine), a cranky old woman (Jenny O’Hara) and an attractive young woman (Bojana Novakavic) — from a stalled elevator in an urban skyscraper.
Although monitored at all times on the building’s security cameras, the men and women stuck inside the elevator begin to die violently, and Bowden, who has suffered a tragedy in his personal life, is forced to reckon with the idea that a malevolent supernatural force — The Devil himself — may be one of the five trapped passengers.
Bowden gleans this surprising notion from a religious security guard named Ramirez (Jacob Vargaz), whose mother used to tell him an old wives tale about something called a “Devil’s Meeting.”
In this myth, “the Devil roams the Earth,” often in “human form” to “punish the damned on Earth, claiming their souls.”
Ramirez is quite specific and adamant about the veracity of such tales, and offers further details. A devil’s meeting is always begun with a “suicide” and it always ends with someone seeing a loved one die, so that the utmost “cynicism” can be wrought from the encounter.
In this way, humans will come to reject God…and embrace Evil.
Bowden is slow to accept the Devil as a possible player in the real life events happening around him, but Ramirez gets under the detective’s skin. “Everyone believes in Him a little bit,” Ramirez tells Bowden “even guys like you who pretend not to…”
This line of dialogue really resonated with me, and helped me to identify with Bowden. I’ve never been a churchgoer or exposed directly to fire-and-brimstone messaging about Old Scratch, and yet the Devil is a terrifying figure to me. As rational and enlightened as I believe and hope I am, the idea of the Devil still plagues and frightens me on some deep, primal level. There are some horror movies I won’t watch when I’m alone in the house, and The Exorcist is one of them, for this very reason. And yet, paradoxically, the idea of facing an Evil like that is one of the primary reasons I am drawn so strongly to the horror genre.
As you know, I write often about horror, and in doing so I frequently assert that it is actually the most moral of all movie genres. I can make that declaration with confidence because few mainstream, non-horror films actually debate a moral universe, or a person’s sense of moral responsibility in life.
But horror movies — for all of their violence — frequently tread into such rarefied spiritual and human terrain. Movies like the original Last House on the Left (1972) may be raw, graphic and extremely upsetting, but they also gaze at the place of violence in our culture outside the milieu of two-dimensional “heroism” we might find in action movies like Death Wish (1975) or Rambo (1985). Those movies say it’s okay to kill someone, if you’re killing a rapist or a commie; but movies like Wes Craven’s ask us to consider that after bloody violence, “the road leads to nowhere.”
I have made similar arguments about any number of great horror films over the years. In showing us True Evil, The Exorcist also makes room for the presence of God in man’s affairs, for instance. And that’s one reason why I’ve never understand the evangelical movement’s general hatred and disdain for horror films.
What other movies take the spiritual realm quite so seriously, quite so literally?
This is my long-winded, sideways manner of noting that Devil — for all of its creepiness and terror — lives up to the great horror movie standard and tradition I describe above. Any tale about the Devil on Earth is also, by implication, a tale about God. Any tale about the worst of our nature is, by implication, a story about the best in our nature.
Devil concerns itself with important matters of the human spirit in a pretty direct manner, using the presence of the Devil on that elevator as a vehicle to communicate ideas about who we are, today, as a people.
Simply put, the trapped passengers have made “choices that brought them” to the elevator of the damned, according to the film’s dialogue. And their way out of Hell is to “take responsibility for” their “decisions and choices.”
I wrote yesterday some about the Great Recession Populism of Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010), and the same context is extant in Devil. One of the people trapped on the elevator is involved in a Ponzi scheme (like Bernie Madoff). One guy is a temp who can’t find regular work. One guy is a blue collar mechanic also looking for a job. And one of the ladies in the elevator is hatching a divorce against her wealthy husband. They are all — in one fashion or another — trying to navigate the current economic downturn successfully. They are all trying to ride the elevator to the top of the economy, so-to-speak, but there is an unwanted passenger aboard, threatening to bring everything and everyone crashing down.
As Ramirez tells Bowden, in a line that is highly self-reflexive, “There’s a reason we’re the audience.”
Indeed there is. For this horror movie is more than a mere roller coaster; it’s a morality tale about our age — the Age of Madoff.
Because of the morality-based stance, and because of the way the Devil is used in the narrative, Devil reminds me (in a positive sense) of a very good episode of The Twilight Zone (think: “The Howling Man”). An evil force is at work and five people who have never met are going to have to deal with it..and each other. At a relatively short duration, some 80 minutes, Devil never outstays its welcome, and in the end — as a deliberate book-end to the film’s opening shot — Philadelphia’s skyline is set right.
Although the movie trades on some cliches occasionally (why are Latinos always the oracles of religion and spiritual in horror movies?), Devil is still a surprisingly effective little horror movie. Don’t let M. Night’s name on the credits scare you away. This is a low budget effort with few big special effects but an abundance of imagination. What starts out as a parlor game (guessing which elevator passenger is the Devil) turns into something else entirely, a thoughtful meditation on personal responsibility and then, most unexpectedly…forgiveness.