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The Devil Doesn't Take the Stairs

Movie Review: Devil (2010)
Spoilers: none

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What starts out with an incomplete reference to I Peter 5:8 – “Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil walketh about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (KJV) – jumps into the story with a narration about a boy who once heard and dismissed his religious mother's claims about the devil.

His conclusion as an adult: The devil is real. He sometimes gets so anxious to torture lost souls that he walks among them in disguise and torments them unto death. He can take any form and go anywhere to wreak his havoc. Even an elevator on a busy day in Philadelphia is not safe from his fiery darts. Those who hate tight spaces and blackouts beware.

In an elevator is an interesting group of people, a wealthy woman, an older woman, a temp hired to work with the security team for the building, a quiet man about whom little is known, and a scummy if energetic mattress salesman with a trying sense of humor. Tailored to a specific end, these tapered and only semi-relatable characters are maximized in value over the film's 80-minute runtime.

When their elevator stops without explanation and it becomes evident that they won't be getting off any time soon, personalities begin to clash. Hostility is born, and soon, unexplained terrors. The pressure-cooker of tension inside the elevator is not where the audience's curiosity is drawn. That happens on the outside as the investigation begins.

Working to secure the building is what has to be one of the least concerned or competent security teams around. Despite laws against it, they hire on temps with felony convictions. And then there's the matter of an openly superstitious Hispanic security guard (Jacob Vargas) who is very vocal with his views about toast landing on the floor jam-side-down--that means the devil is around! He becomes almost immediately convinced that the tragedy that is happening in the elevator is the result of el Diablo (how convenient for the storytelling aspect of the plot to bring that up).

Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) is handling the situation. He is, of course, a non-believer, having left his own “dark place” six months earlier due to the deaths of his wife and son in a tragic car accident. Picking up the pieces, here he is trying to move on, working with building security and firefighters in efforts to free five trapped strangers.

Detective Bowden plays right into the role that most religious audiences would have him in, as a hard heart who says things like: “We don't need the devil. People are bad enough by themselves.” We've come to expect from Hollywood that those who say such things are destined to either die in character or be proved wrong (or both). The skeptics were idiots for demanding all that evidence and not just accepting those unsupported notions we were spoon-fed as children.

Devil is sustained by one longed-for thing that is a most welcomed guest in every horror/thriller: the onset of panic (the more intense, the better, even when not done as well as it should be). Whether or not you'll be scared is a toss-up and depends on whether or not you will be more alarmed by the helpless victims trapped inside an elevator and melting down, or more alarmed by the fact that more than a dozen rescue workers can't get in to save them from themselves...or from whatever it is that is taking so damn long to kill them.

The by-now-expectedly odd thing about this and other “devil movies” is how the message can't help but betray its origins of the myths on which it rides in. The devil acts as a kind of confessional force that brings people to, believe it or not, a knowledge of their sins. Yes, I'm afraid so. The old devil appears to be wholly unaware of his profound ability to make people confess their evil deeds rather than remain in denial about them. Doesn't exactly fall in line with what a smart devil would do, does it? He wants you to come to Hell and suffer at his hands for eternity, but he feels compelled to tell you off for having behaved in a way that got you there in the first place.

What we have is structurally solid on the way to its climax, as it yields a curveball of suspense in the unfolding of the story in fashion of a “who done it”-style mystery/thriller. Such efforts are later abandoned for the strictly supernatural option that the trailer had you prepared for—The devil is in the elevator. Guess who! 

The result: Just before the ending segment, the story no longer holds any suspense. From there, the so-so characters that we never really cared much for and limp emotional appeals are seen for what they are in a borderline-preachy lesson on moral accountability and how we create our own private “hells” on the way to the big one.

Director John Erick Dowdle, with writers Bryan Nelson and M. Night Shyamalan, who also works as a producer, gives us a surprisingly dovetailed story that almost proves its worth. Aside from some setbacks with the characters and a concluding portion that fails to impress, this is one of Shyamalan's more organized works that suggests a thinking other than his own.

(JH)

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Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for violence and disturbing images, thematic material and some language, including sexual references)
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Summary: A group of people trapped in an elevator find that the devil is among them.
Starring: Chris Messina "Detective Bowden," Logan Marshall-Green "Mechanic," Jenny O'Hara "Old Woman," Bojana Novakovic "Young Woman," Bokeem Woodbine "Guard," Geoffrey Arend "Salesman," Jacob Vargas "Ramirez," Matt Craven "Lustig," Joshua Peace "Detective Markowitz"
Genre: Thriller / Horror / Mystery
Trailer

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