When Universal stamps the imprimatur of M. Night Shyamalan on their pre-Christmas release, you have to assume that their (American) publicity department is either very naïve or supremely confident. The director hasn't had a good run of late (well, since The Sixth Sense to be honest), and his most recent film, The Last Airbender, is easily one of the worst films of 2010.
But Devil, the first in the proposed The Night Chronicles series of films, is not directed by Shyamalan. He is a producer here and originated and developed each of the stories that will comprise the films, but The Night Chronicles are envisioned as projects for up-and-coming filmmakers to cut their teeth on.
John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) is in the director's chair on Devil and he displays a confidant hand from the outset; his camera sweeps in to Philadelphia across the harbour (or river? My Philly geography is a little lax), the city introduced upside down.
Following a suicide, the Devil has come to town ready to claim the souls of five sinners who, as luck would have it are all passengers on an elevator in a downtown skyscraper. Luck also has Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) nearby to take the call when the five become trapped on the 21st floor and weird shit ensues i.e. the passengers are picked off one-by-one.
Casting relatively unknown actors as the victims (including Australian actress Bojana Novacovic) circumvents audience expectations about who will die and when, who will survive, and also who, if any, may be the killer.
Most of those murders occur off-screen when the lights in the elevator go out: we witness the results rather than the act. Dowdle, and by extension Shyamalan, isn't necessarily interested in the horror. Devil is a morality tale: no bad deed goes unpunished and karma's a bitch. That said, the dialogue is hokey rather than preachy. But it's entertaining, too, something a Shyamalan film hasn't been for quite some time.