Maybe it's because M Night Shyamalan is finally coming to terms that he no longer is the toast of the town, that he has decided to focus his energies on producing and writing suspenseful thrillers for his project known as The Night Chronicles, with the first film Devil off the blocks, and others to come including his original story idea from his planned sequel to Unbreakable. We know how Shyamalan of late likes to direct and include himself as one amongst the cast, though this time it probably took a lot of effort to vacate that director's chair and quash that acting bug, to allow someone else to helm what is essentially a film that's right up Shyamalan's own territory. It's almost like putting a candy jar in front of a kid, but not allowing him access at all.
Enter directors Drew and John Erick Dowdle, who I thought made a decent effort in bringing to life Shyamalan's story set around the confines of a claustrophobic lift, where five strangers happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, each of them being trapped inside the lift and sharing some common traits that will be revealed as the story wore on. The film addresses the notion that nothing is ever coincidental, especially if powerful negative forces like the devil decide to walk the earth and claim a few souls, while at the same time having fun toying with their prey. Weaving in a folk tale like what he did for Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's tale here involves the full works of how the devil operates, and comes with a method to defeat the supernatural forces seen in the film.
The directors managed to steer clear of the usual cliches for a fright fest, and rightly so as well because this is not that film. Granted that there are a few well crafted scenes to suggest that there are spiritual elements involved in how the victims - a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green), an old woman (Jenny O'Hara), a young woman (Bojana Novakovic), a guard (Bokeem Woodbine) and a salesman (Geoffrey Arend) - the real draw is how visually arresting this film is in capturing fear from within close quarters. The opening sweeping shot of the city of Philadelphia upside down will bring about some disorientation, before reducing that spatial distance down to within the lift, mirroring that view through a CCTV camera back to the building's security control room, which to me is where some of the best instances of the film shines through.
I'd actually preferred what went on outside of that lift, since what's going to happen within is more like a done deal, with one of the five already revealed through marketing that he/she is someone who doesn't belong. There's more fun in following Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who has to make sense of what's going on, balancing his deductive prowess against something that cannot be explained by logic, and watching how his due diligence and process get blown to smithereens when at first he thinks this is a simple open and shut situation, until he realizes that he's up against something that's inexplicable. It's one thing to swagger in with a plan, before fear sets in that one can be so helpless when trying to save the lives of others.
The strength of the film lies in Shyamalan's story, which is deceptively simple, yet highly effective in weaving all the plot threads together, and the linking up of the characters so crucial in providing a satisfying finale. Fans of Shyamalan's stories will find that he still has more than enough gas in the tank to come up with suspenseful tales that others now have a chance to helm on the big screen, something like what Luc Besson does these days. My interest is now piqued to see how the rest of the Chronicles will present themselves.