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Having proved that his Oscar-nominated breakthrough The Sixth Sense was no fluke with Unbreakable, Signs, and, to a lesser extent, The Village, the divisive director first showed all the attention had gone to his head with 2006’s The Lady in the Water. Shyamalan cast himself as a creative genius whose work shaped the world in the pretentious modern-day fable. No doubt burned by the mixed response to his previous effort, he also wrote in the character of a humorless film critic who, in an obvious case of schadenfreude, meets an untimely grisly end. Unsurprisingly, the real-life film critics stuck the knife in even deeper this time around.
The Happening, a preposterous 2008 eco-thriller famous for a gormless Mark Wahlberg talking to plants, did little to restore Shyamalan’s kudos. And any residual goodwill completely dissipated with 2010’s The Last Airbender, an incomprehensible adaptation of a much-loved western anime which deservedly picked up five Razzies (including the rather niche Worst Eye-Gouging Misuse of 3D).
In fact, Shyamalan’s stock had fallen so far that when the trailer for Devil dropped at the San Diego Comic-Con later that same year, the sight of his name in the credits was reportedly greeted with universal boos. Not exactly the desired reception for a film he didn’t even helm, and thankfully didn’t make a cameo in, either.
Yes, on this occasion Shyamalan’s contribution was largely story-based. The filmmaker had previously written the script for the charming mouse caper Stuart Little and, perhaps even more unexpectedly, polished the screenplay of the late '90s quintessential teen rom-com She’s All That.
But with Devil, Shyamalan merely sowed the seeds for screenwriter Brian Nelson with a simple but intriguing premise inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: Five people in an elevator get picked off one by one by Beelzebub himself. But who is the devil in disguise?
Shyamalan also served as producer of the satanic whodunit, which was intended to kickstart a supernatural trilogy dubbed “The Night Chronicles” (its final chapter was reported to be a continuation of Unbreakable, a la Split). Sadly, despite raking in a respectable $62.7 million on a modest budget of $10 million — for comparison, The Lady in the Water only grossed $2 million more than the hefty $70 million sum it cost to make — Devil proved to be a one-off.
It seems fair to say that Universal wasn’t particularly confident about its franchise potential in the first place. Devil wasn’t screened for critics in advance of its cinematic release in mid-September 2010, typically a clear sign a studio is well aware it has a turkey on its hands.
Yet they needn’t have been so cautious. Although hardly in the same league as Shyamalan’s earlier work, the high-concept horror was far more warmly-received than the trio of absolute stinkers that had turned the once-celebrated auteur into a laughing stock. Sure, not all of his detractors were converted but many critics appeared to appreciate Devil for what it was — an entertaining piece of pure B-movie hokum.
Indeed, although it doesn’t completely abandon Shyamalan’s quasi-religious leanings — each of the five trapped individuals all just happens to harbor a deep, dark secret they haven’t atoned for — it’s far more interested in ramping up the thrills than pontificating about repentance.
Director John Erick Dowdle, given the gig after scaring the bejesus out of Shyamalan with 2007 serial killer mockumentary The Poughkeepsie Tapes, had skill when it came to claustrophobic horror. He’d also helmed the surprisingly faithful adaptation of Spanish found-footage hit REC two years earlier. And with the help of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who opens the film with a spectacular upside-down swooping shot of the Philadelphia skyline), he creates a similar sense of unrelenting dread here, too.
Devil barely pauses for breath from the moment a man jumps to his death from the skyscraper setting in the first scene. As the action switches to the doomed elevator, we briefly meet the motley crew about to experience their own personal Tower of Terror. There’s the conniving mattress salesman Vince (Geoffrey Arend), elderly petty thief Jane (Jenny O’Hara), glamorous gold digger Sarah (Bojana Novakovic), violent security guard Ben (Bokeem Woodbine), and the mysterious mechanic Tony (Logan Marshall-Green) whose sins take a little longer to be revealed.
Not one of these characters is particularly likable, yet this just means it’s easier to revel in their inevitable demise. For every time the elevator is plunged into darkness, the devil amongst them goes for the kill, whether it’s slitting throats, breaking necks, or just some good old-fashioned hanging: For a PG-13 affair, its deaths are surprisingly gruesome.
Dowdle cleverly plays around with the senses to heighten the tension throughout. The stoic Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) and the exposition-spewing security team can watch most of the action unfold on CCTV but can’t hear it. Those stuck in the “hellevator” have the opposite problem. Audiences, meanwhile, are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild whenever the film turns both pitch-black and eerily silent.
By playing out in real-time, Devil also contains a sense of urgency that’s missing from Shyamalan’s directorial efforts. Some critics claimed they were left feeling short-changed when the credits rolled after just 80 minutes. But this slim running time is perfectly in keeping with the film’s extended Twilight Zone episode vibes, and barely a minute is wasted as it hurtles toward its twisty climax.
Yes, the Shyamalan twist is still very much a feature here. Although for a movie about a human manifestation of Satan dishing out justice in a broken-down lift, it’s actually one of his more grounded.
Unfortunately, the director would fall back to old habits with his next venture, the plodding Scientology propaganda of 2013’s After Earth. But The Visit, another taut, back-to-basics horror released two years later, would spearhead a full-blown Shyamalan renaissance which allowed him to finally expand the world of Unbreakable. Yet the plaudits for his most recent effort, the demonic Apple TV+ mystery Servant, suggests that he should dance with the devil more often.