Perhaps inspired by Clive Barker’s own ‘presents’ shingle, and maybe Dark Castle’s prolific roster of (generally terrible) horror films, M. Night Shyamalan thought he could set up his own branded franchise – the “Night Chronicles” – and germinate films from his seeded original ideas. As one of his producers states in one of the DVD’s three blatantly promotional featurettes, the hope was the film series would be worthy of comparison to The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The comparisons aren’t crazy – Shyamalan’s films are hybrids of Hitchcockian mystery with twist finales typical of TZ – but not unlike idol Steven Spielberg’s own efforts to franchise his ‘magic touch’, Shyamalan must have realized running a new series is a lot more complicated than it seems.
Spielberg had an entire department at his Amblin Entertainment division to exploit ‘the touch’ to family films, TV series, and other feature films with Spielberg as creative control director, and that’s certainly the kind of system Devil was intended to start. The funny thing is Devil feels like a solid, old-fashion anthology TV movie, with an almost classical style that’s refreshingly bereft of ADD editing, sadism, and heavy gore. It’s obvious it was designed to be sold to a PG audience, but it’s pleasantly surprising how well the concept for Devil was developed into a script where a group of characters trapped in a confined space create the bulk of the film’s tension as things go increasingly wrong due to supernatural badness.
The story is very simple: five seemingly unrelated characters become trapped in an elevator, and while efforts to free the group become more stressed, the detective called to investigate a supposedly unrelated suicide begins to realize there are indeed strange connections among the trapped passengers, and he has to figure it all out before the increasingly frequent power blackouts yield another dead passenger.
Devil is essentially a TV movie, if not a low budget film, and its brief running time – 80 mins. with credits – may have been a reason it didn’t wholly click with audiences wanting the value added combo of implied terror in the taut trailers, and a running time with more scope. The DVD’s deleted scenes – character intros – are too oblique and unnecessary, making the 80 mins. the film’s proper natural running time. It’s a good example of how spending time on characters, dialogue, and developed conflicts & twists creates more tension than extravagant special effects montages, and the supernatural element is nicely integrated as normalcy quirks evaporates, and the detective starts to believe a superstitious security guard.
Situated in Philadelphia but clearly shot entirely on location at Toronto’s Bay Adelaide Centre (city natives will immediately spot familiar fences and building facades), director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, The Poughkeepsie Tapes) and writer Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) incorporated a lot of simple factual and procedural details which give excellent contrast towards the mounting weirdness, and the cast of top-level American and a smattering of local talent (veteran Matt Craven and TV’s Lost Girl Zioe Palmer) are well-chosen for their everyman / everywoman roles. Tak Fujimoto’s scope compositions are elegant, and Fernando Velazquez’ brooding score comes in only when necessary, accenting dramatic points at the right junctures.
Universal’s extras are rather paltry, though. Besides the deleted scenes, there are a handful of featurettes that contain more repeated film footage than actual content, so viewers wanting finer details on its making, genesis, and inspiration are cheated by what are essentially promo spots for TV and web dissemination. The extras are really about getting viewers familiar with the Night Chronicles brand name, but the irony is the ‘myriad’ stories Shyamalan says are swirling within his head have yet to go beyond Devil. It’s a pity the supposedly two other stories haven’t been realized, as this debut release is superior in writing than most of the Dark Castle rubbish which has littered screens large and small for almost 14 years.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan