Devil is the latest in a long line of horror movies about Beelzebub, made by people who haven’t actually read his resume. Like just about every storyteller who came before him M. Night Shyamalan, who cooked up this concept for Brian Nelson to turn into a script, has confused Satan with Hades. Hades comes from Greek mythology and he’s the god of the underworld whose job it is to torment the wicked. The Devil on the other hand, is a Christian figure who exists primarily to tempt the righteous into wrongdoing, not punish them for doing it. He wants them to do evil, that’s how he gets back at God for pushing him out of heaven. In Christianity it’s God who does the punishing, and Satan who tries to trick everyone into getting punished, but for some reason in movies Yahweh always gets a pass and everything gets blamed on the Father of Lies who, in this case shows up in an elevator to lay the smack down on a group of wrongdoers, including a mattress salesman.
Now mattress salesmen are pretty evil and I can behind the notion of the Devil trapping one of those assholes in a confined space and making him earn commission by dancing to his tune, but you’d think the dark lord might have something better to do on a Monday morning. You’d think there’d be someone even more evil out there somewhere who deserves his time. Anyone seen Osama bin Laden? But nope, the Devil literally decides he’d rather come to Earth in physical form and spend his morning taking a personal interest in punishing a group of people whose crimes include such relative larcenies as gold digging, lying, mattress selling, and general old lady crankiness. Osama bin who?
So five people end up trapped in an elevator. The movie’s narrator, who turns out to be a superstitious security guard played by an actor who seems to be doing an impression of Jimmy Kimmel’s dim-witted sidekick Guillermo, tells us that he knows what’s going on. He knows because once a long time ago his grandma told him so. He sits in his security booth watching people trapped in an elevator, and while everyone runs around trying to save them, he gets down on his knees and starts praying into his walkie-talkie, while telling everyone that one of the people in the elevator is the Devil and they’re all doomed so there’s nothing they can do. Conveniently, in the movie’s final moments, he reveals there is something they could have done to stop the Devil he just didn’t bother to tell anyone about it because it seemed like it might be really hard. I guess praying ineffectually into your walkie-talkie is easier. Way to go Guillermo.
When the movie’s not so wrapped up in religious ridiculousness it sort of works, though. Dowdle’s a decent director and he does a good job of building up tension in confined spaces while also cutting between the elevator and efforts on the outside to get people free. There’s a detective outside, at the center of the action, and his story is kind of a bad, alcoholic cop cliché, but Dowdle keeps it in the background and doesn’t let it get in the way of simply keeping things tense. For instance there’s never that groan-worthy moment when the formerly alcoholic cop is tempted by a bottle of whiskey he finds in somebody’s office. Devil keeps moving, keeps the tension going.
Except it’s never exactly scary. Devil is at its root, more of a mystery movie than a horror movie. It’s tense but it rarely scares because all the truly horrifying things happen off camera. People only get killed when the lights go out, so you don’t actually see the deaths. Whenever something happens it simply goes dark. There’s never a moment that’ll make you jump in your seat. It has to go dark or you’ll know who the murderer is, and Devil executes those moments well, it’s just not able to make them scary. Maybe there isn’t a way to make them scary. Maybe it isn’t trying to be scary. Maybe they don't need to be scary.
Devil does a good job of building tension in spite of a fairly brain dead concept. While you’re probably not really going to enjoy the movie’s attempt at a big payoff, the journey to get there isn’t wholly without merit. The script's mythology is built on half-thought out superstitions which never really work, but if you can ignore that, as a capably directed murder mystery in confined spaces it has something to offer.