Director/writer M. Night Shymalan has had some hits and some misses since coming out of the gate strong with “The Sixth Sense” in 1999. His later serious films have almost seemed like a car slowly losing speed, as he wrote or directed “Unbreakable” (2000), “Signs” (2002), “The Village” (2004), “Lady in the Water” (2006), “The Happening” (2008) and, this year, “The Last Airbender.”
It was about time for the 40-year-old Shymalan, a Philadelphia native who is the son of 2 physicians and started aiming for a career in film at the tender age of 8, to score strongly again. And he has, by teaming up with others and merely providing the story for this horror story set in an elevator.
I like Shymalan’s stories, because I also try for that home run surprise twist ending when I write. I don’t always hit it out of the park and, obviously, neither has Shymalan in the films that succeeded “The Sixth Sense” (1999) with Bruce Willis. The comparison I always get, when I have crafted a “surprise” twist ending for a short story is, “This has the feeling of the old E.C. Comics.” I’m not sure whether Shymalan has heard that from others regarding his fanciful stories, but there is a twist ending for this film (Don’t worry; no spoilers from me), too. This time, with John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”) directing and Tak Fujimoto (“Silence of the Lambs”) in charge of photography, Shymalan is on solid footing in the first of what is billed as being “The Night Chronicles.”
Another strong point in this film, aside from competent acting, which we’ll discuss in a moment, is the tension-producing music selected by Fernando Velazquez. I was reminded of just how powerful a good score can be, a la Bernard Herrman’s many collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, when I saw “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” recently and felt that the music was a weak link in an otherwise strong film.
The plot is simple. Two women and three men get on an elevator in a high-rise building in Philadelphia, one which has seen a jumper leap to his death earlier in the day. One by one, they begin to be murdered. We know that the devil is responsible. Yes, I said the devil.
As the script by Brian Nelson (“30 Days of Night”) put it, “Everybody believes in him a little bit, even guys like you that believe that they don’t.” We are further informed that, “He always kills the last person in front of the person they love most to make cynics of us all. He never does this in secret. There’s a reason we’re here.” Only the Mexican security guard in the building, watching the carnage unfold in the office on a television monitor believes, religiously speaking (“If you believe in God, you’ve got to believe in the devil.”) that the devil may be behind all this, when Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) arrives on the scene. He and his partner, played by Matt Craven as Lustig, have been trying to rescue the trapped passengers from the elevator for some time and all the agencies are called into play before the film reaches its climax.
Bowden, as played by Chris Messina (“Greenberg,” Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” episodes of “Six Feet Under”) has had a rough year. A hit-and-run driver killed his wife and young son only months earlier; he is still struggling to come to terms with his loss. Detective Bowden is also not normally a guy who is going to attribute evil acts to the devil, even if Security guard Jacob Vargas says, “The devil roams the Earth and takes human form.” You can almost hear him saying, “Right,” early on, when, instead, the script puts it, “I don’t believe in the devil. We don’t need them. People are bad enough by themselves.”
The people in this case — or elevator — are an old woman revealed to be a pick-pocket (Jenny O’Hara of “Mystic River”), a young woman, Sarah Caraway (Bojana Novakovic of “Drag Me to Hell”), a claustrophobic security guard with a record, Benjamin Larson (Bokeem Woodbine of “The Last Sentinel”), a squirrelly mattress salesman who once ran a Ponzi scheme, Tony (Geoffrey Arend of “500 Days of Summer’), and the last to make the elevator, a mechanic played by Logan Marshall-Green of “Brooklyn’s Finest” and a continuing role on the new cop series “Dark Blue.” Most recognizable of the cast is Logan Marshall-Green and, possibly, Matt Craven as the senior security guard. As the police on the scene say, “It’s quite the crew we have here,” as they learn that every one of the passengers is, in some way, “dirty.”
Trapping five people in an elevator and trying to make a drama in such a confined space would seem to be a difficult task, but it is pulled off with bravado by St. Paul-born director John Erick Dowdle, who directed “Quarantine” and studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Let’s not forget that Dowdle’s working from a story crafted by the director/writer with 40 nominations for 2 Oscars, 9 other wins and 21 other nominations.(www.imdb.com) The assembled team for “Devil” is like a finely crafted precision Swiss watch, interjecting such interesting touches as an opening panorama of the city of Philadelphia (Shymalan’s hometown) shot upside-down.
There seems to be an emphasis on remorse and retribution bestowing some saving grace for humanity in the film but, as the script by Brian Nelson (“30 Days of Night”) puts it, “You’re never going to get these people to see themselves as they really are. When you’re self-destructing, it looks like it’s the world’s fault.”
This is a very entertaining film that restores Shymalan’s somewhat dimmed luster and reminds us why he was once paid $5 million dollars by Disney Studios to script “The Village” in 2004. That salary made him the highest-paid writer in Hollywood at the time. I look forward to the second in The Night Chronicles, which I feel certain will entertain, frighten and engage as thoroughly as “Devil” did.