Every so often, a wave of potential Yakmala! candidates wash ashore at once. Right now, Sucker Punch is high on the list, being described as something like “Inception with 300% more rape.” However, I am here to champion another film for inclusion in the annals of Yakmala!: a little film called Devil.
You may remember Devil as the film whose trailer drew hoots and hollers and boos when M Night Shyamalan’s name appeared as a producer. I don’t feel this was enough; there should have been a couple of pitchforks and torches involved, but we’ll keep things civil for now. But when it was released, the reviews weren’t apocalyptic. They were bad, to be sure, and it still sits at a sub-par 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, but compared to the 7% Last Airbender received, it’s like a write-up in Cahiers du cinema. Surely this film could dodge some of Shyamalan’s bad tendencies, seeing as he only produced and co-wrote it, right?
After an oh-so-film-school credit sequence with helicopter footage of Philadelphia flipped upside down (because, Satan, and things are wrong, and such), we are treated to a man falling out of a 35th story window and landing on a truck. Afterward, we meet Detective Bowden (Chris Messina, clearly chasing the Chris Klein “Charlie Nash” Award for Excellence in Acting) is meeting with his AA sponsor. He’s three months sober, having become an alcoholic since his wife and son were killed in a hit and run. If you miss this information, don’t worry: it will be hammered home a few more times throughout the movie. He then investigates a suicide, which is the one from earlier, except the truck is not outside the skyscraper; it’s (we find out) about two or three blocks from the skyscraper, as well as around a corner. How the hell a truck drifted this far in downtown Philly with a corpse atop it is justified by Bowden pointing to a freeway divider and explaining that they’re “made to bounce trucks off of.” Um, excuse me, Detective, but how does -
Well, with that out of the way, we go back to the skyscraper, where five people gather in an elevator. There’s a Salesman, a Guard, a Mechanic, an Old Woman, and a Young Woman. I’m capitalizing them because that’s how they’re actually credited. Even though they give their names in the film, they are simply credited as their jobs. And the women don’t even get that; only age differentiates them. The elevator gets stuck, and soon they all get irritated with each other, especially with Salesman, played by Geoffrey Arend (aka Mr Christina Hendricks, aka THAT MOTHERFUCKER) – who, compared to the rest of the cast, is the standout, which isn’t saying much.
The lights start going out, and weird shit starts happening (“weird shit” does not include “a proper plot or believable dialogue”). Then the lights go out again, and when they come back up, Salesman has been stabbed in the throat. Lucky Geoffrey: first he marries Joan, then he gets to spend the majority of this film motionless. But that also means the best actor in the film dies first, the first of many poor decisions made by the filmmakers.
Bowden and his partner are involved with the case of the elevator by now, watching it on a security camera with two watchmen. One of them is Ramirez, who as the only Latino in the film, is of course the one who warns the cops about the satanic overtones of what is happening. (That the Latino is the super-religious one in Devil is something that pissed off Queta to no end.) He talks about how the situation reminds him of stories about the devil that his mom used to tell him, but there’s really nothing spelled out. The story of the devil, as far as I can piece together, is that he visits people who deserve to die, gathers them in a group, and then kills them, and something about toast falling jelly-side down and children hitting their heads on tables. That’s really about it. Cool story, mom!
What follows is a sequence of paranoia and red herrings, followed by the lights going down and random grunting noises, and then someone else dies. I won’t mention the rest of the deaths – not out of respect for spoilers, but more because you just don’t fucking care after a while. I don’t understand why the filmmakers adhered to this idea of total darkness being the scariest thing ever, but there’s Blair Witch, and then there’s grunting in the dark. It sounds like a women’s Wimbledon match played in pitch darkness.
But the random grunting is a welcome upgrade from some of the dialogue. Holy Jesus in Heaven, is some of this shit bad. One line that sticks out is at the end of a brief argument, Salesman actually says to someone else, “Yeah? Well, go suck a butt.” Now, this may sound like Salesman is five years old, but he’s an adult. One theory might be that this is simply a window into his immaturity, but the more reasonable theory is that the writers were idiots and thought this was a good comeback.
The following brief exchange sums up everything wrong with the film for me:
Bowden: In this hypothetical conversation we’re not having, how would your story end?
Ramirez: They all die.
Bowden: That’s it?
The first line is a glimpse at the often marblemouthed dialogue the actors are forced to speak. The second sums up how arbitrary everything in this film is; there’s no stable backstory regarding the devil and what he’s doing, he just gathers people in a room to kill them, I guess. And the third mirrors the audience’s frustration with the whole damn enterprise. From the suicide at the beginning (which, BTW, is all but forgotten by the end of the movie, though it’s supposed to be some sort of inciting incident), to Bowden’s constant reminders that, yes, his wife and son were killed in a hit-and-run, to the random religious nonsense coming out of Ramirez’s mouth, you just wanna throw your hands up and leave.
But it is entertaining enough from a Yakmala! standpoint. Even if a lot of it isn’t LOL funny, it’s exasperating enough that you keep wondering how much worse it’ll get. And it does get worse, right up through the final Shyamalan twist…
which this film has, and it’s awful. Even for a genre where shitty endings are expected, this one is a real groaner. (Not in the dark of an elevator, though.)
The film’s saving grace (really, its only one) is that it barely reaches 80 minutes. This thing ain’t going for too long, and thank god for that. Two-plus hours in an elevator with Bokeem Woodbine and some non-stars would have been a special form of torture, kinda like Satan himself filmed it. Maybe there is a God, and he owns Final Cut Pro. The last one, not the new one everyone hates.
(NOTE: The beginning of the film has a logo for something called “The Night Chronicles,” followed by a “1.” There’s talk of some potential trilogy. God help us all.)