Saturday, December 25, 2010

HIGH RISE DANCE WITH THE DEVIL: a review of "The Night Chronicles: Devil"

Story by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay Written by Brian Nelson
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
** (two stars)

While cloying to some viewers, the spiritual themes and layers that exist inside of the films of M. Night Shyamalan have typically proven fruitful to me as they have broadened his work beyond simple thrills and chills into films that bear a stamp that is decidedly personal and individualized. While I will not go through the litany of his films and themes again as they have been housed elsewhere on Savage Cinema, I will say that I have enjoyed figuring out what Shyamalan has been attempting to communicate about himself and the way he sees the world through his work, which proudly wears its genre stylings on its proverbial sleeves.

In the tradition of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” M. Night Shyamalan has now begun to carve out his own anthology series entitled “The Night Chronicles” of which “Devil” is the premiere installment. Yet, this time, Shyamalan has not written or directed this material as this series is designed for him to farm out his original story ideas to other filmmakers to full realize. As an opening into a new cinematic world presented by Shyamalan, “Devil” is a creative and decent enough first try but ultimately disappointing through a certain preachiness that undercuts the spiritual tension. And when we all know full well that Shyamalan can truly deliver the goods with the scares and the themes, .

Set in Philadelphia, as with nearly all of Shyamalan’s films, “Devil” takes place at a high-rise office building at which Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is investigating a suicide that has occurred at this site that very morning. As Bowden pieces together certain clues and evidence, five characters enter an elevator simply preparing to go about their respective days. Our cast includes an obnoxious mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend), a claustrophobic security guard (Bokeem Woodbine), a late middle-aged woman (Jenny O’Hara), a wealthy, sexy young woman (Bojana Novakovic), and a young Marine Corps veteran (Logan Marshall-Green).

After a few moments, the elevator ceases to move, thus trapping the five inside. The elevator inhabitants are on constant surveillance by the security team, which includes the religiously devout Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), who also occasionally narrates the film. And then…the lights go out inside of the elevator and the young woman is revealed to have been attacked by someone or…something! As the story continues, and the connections between the Detective and the elevator inhabitants are exposed, it has become more than likely that one of the people in the elevator is actually Satan and he has hungrily come to claim more damaged souls for his possession.

Now, I do have to say that this is an intriguing premise with an equally intriguing set-up. I really liked the idea of trapping five people inside of a cramped location for most of the film’s scant 80 minute running time. It allows the story to maintain a certain rigid focus and intensity while also potentially allowing the actors to have a grand time playing off of each other as they collectively raise the emotional stakes for the audience.

Much like Director Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979) or even Director John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” (1982), “Devil” is a haunted house type of film with characters meeting their respective ends one by one. And while Shyamalan did not write or direct this film with his own hand, his influence and sensibilities are all over the screen, especially through the themes of forgiveness and damnation on display. Dowdle keeps the film moving along briskly while Nelson’s screenplay effectively expresses Shyamalan’s other key theme of having others, either actual beings or forces, walking around the Earth with us.

Yet, somehow, “Devil” is surprisingly not very scary at all. Granted, as I have previously written, I am not typically a fan of horror films as I tend to enjoy pursuits that are more psychological and suspenseful. The scares are not gore driven and I did like how much of the tension existed in the very things that cannot be seen as well as through sudden sound effects and quick glimpses at previously unseen terrors. But, that said, it never burrowed under my skin in the least and considering that the threat is nothing less than the Prince Of Darkness himself, “Devil” was highly disappointing.

Perhaps since Shyamalan did not write the actual screenplay himself, it lacked a certain subtlety that is usually present in his work and does tend to sneak its way into some of our primal fears. Like the concepts of communication in “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and interconnectivity in “Signs” (2002), nearly all of the film’s characters share certain connections, like the damaged souls from “Lost” who find each other in a location that defies escape. And while those connections are fully revealed by the film’s climax, I found the film’s narration to be a bit too “connect the dots” for my tastes. Also, the religious allegory is a bit too heavy handed as well as I would have preferred the parable to have, again, a tad more subtlety, which I think would have made the film much more frightening. And then, there’s the identity of the titular devil, of course I will not spoil here, but I will admit that it is a revelation that is also a little too easy to spot.

But, most of all, “Devil” is yet another case where the film’s coming attractions trailer made for a better motion picture experience than the full length film. Like the trailers for F. Gary Gray’s “The Italian Job”(2003), Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” (2009) and Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” (2009), the powers that be who create those particular coming attractions seemed to obtain a grasp and presentation of the material that eclipsed the main filmmakers in charge. And beyond that, those people told those film’s respective stories in almost their entirety, in a mere fraction of the time as well, which unfortunately undercuts the main event severely. In the case of “Devil,” which is short enough, it certainly didn’t need to have the proverbial carpet swept out from under it by a trailer but I think that it did. Oh well…

2010 has not been a good year for M. Night Shyamalan as he has weathered the creative storms of his noble and ambitious misfire “The Last Airbender” and now this somewhat lackluster debut entry into a potentially new anthology series. As I stated this past summer, I remain a fan of Shyamalan and will not board the train of those who exist to bash him. He tells stories in a way that appeals greatly to my sensibilities and I will continue to root for his grand return.

But, he had better rebound quickly and the dark forces of Hollywood may soon resist any stories he may wish to share.

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