You don’t see a horror movie to have a nice time. You don’t go to lace fingers with your sweetie and laugh at the witty repartee and sniffle into your shirtsleeve during the climactic emotional breakthroughs and gradually be lulled into halcyon repose filled with reassurance that humanity is all roses and puppies and gold lamé jumpsuits. You go to have your consciousness assaulted, your moral grounding questioned, and your niggling suspicion that our species is teetering on the edge of total depravity confirmed. You go to be right-hooked out of the day-to-day complacency of post-industrial Western life. And above all, you go to have your motherf&%#ing balls scared off.
Which is why it’s so exciting when a horror film touches on that rarest of achievements-a unique, truly scary cinematic moment. And why it’s so eye-gouge-ingly frustrating when the filmmaker chickens out and ruins that moment by upending a full Port-a-Potty of religious BS on top of it.
But before we get into religious ruination, let’s talk about M. Night Shyamalan. There’s no way to discuss Devil without first noting that he’s involved with this movie. It’s like the STD convo on the third date-there’s just no moving forward until it’s addressed.
If anything, the Shyamster is a perfect example of the fragility of modern reputations. He’s like the poster child for creative destruction. I’m not going to dissect the awfulness of each of his last umpteen cinematic calamities-suffice it to say the entire collective consciousness agrees they sucked beyond the bounds of comprehension.
Still, in defense of Sir Shyamalot, I will say that in most of his movies, hidden somewhere in the pulpy depths of eye-gouging dialogue and fecal plotlines, there is usually an intriguing idea. Take The Happening-yes, watching it was a bit like having your liver munched by zombie crows. But there was something raw and amazing about those first few scenes-the notion of masses of human beings completely losing their will to survive. It’s fascinatingly counterintuitive, and most importantly, it hadn’t been done to death, and was memorable.
Of course, it all typically goes to sh#t somewhere around 15 minutes in, when his characters start uttering lines like, “Why don’t you suck a butt” as an attempt to establish background. Somewhere in the writing process, rubbish starts to flow from his pen like raw sewage from a Staten Island treatment plant. (And don’t even get me started on the mandatory â€˜Cameo in His Own Films’ rule-and yes, it pisses me off when Tarantino does it too.)
Which brings us to Devil. ShyamSuperman didn’t direct it-that honor went to John Eric Dowdle, whose resume includes Quarantine, a decent remake of the Spanish zombie film REC. In particular, Dowdle plays well with the dark-how it tricks our perception, alters our sense of reality, and generally scares the crap out of us. But M. Night did nab writing and producing credits-and slapping “From M. Night Shyamalan” on the trailer was enough to elicit groans and catcalls from the sold-out crowd when it played before Inception. As with all Shyamalan projects, it has a promising premise-five people are trapped in an elevator, and one of them gets murderous. Add moments of electrical-failure darkness, and you’ve got a situation of squirm-worthy pressure and fear. Which is EXACTLY where we want a good horror movie to go.
Except then Dowdle and his puppetmaster totally puss-er, uh, chicken out-or, more accurately, they assume the AUDIENCE will chicken out and be incapable of handling the situation they’ve oh-so-masterfully created. So at the moments of unbearable tension and horror (the gruesome death of the first victim, the awful confrontation when just (no spoilers!) x number people are left) the film flitters off into some preternatural mess where security guards are muttering prayers in Spanish and the flaccid husband from Julie & Julia is blubbering about his dead son.
And therein lies the crucial Shyamalan mistake: Rather than simply give us a basic, uncomplicated, and yet completely scary premise-people trapped in a tight, enclosed space with a homicidal monster-he has to mix in a fetid grab-bag of various supernatural explanations-or, in this case, silly Biblical dogma. Blah blah it’s really SATAN in the elevator and he’s here to punish your unconfessed sins blah blah blah yawn. Little matter that the non-supernatural idea-that you could get stuck in an elevator with a psychopathic murderer-is both highly possible and a relatively universal fear, and therefore works perfectly well on its own.
No, somehow Shyamalan and his enablers assume we want-no, NEED-the idea of a spectral chassis of evil, that we cling to the standard lore of a Devil because it’s more appealing than the truth, which is that evil is a vast universe of moral relativisms and perspectives, and that one man’s heroism in Afghanistan may have created five orphans that will grow up viewing him and his blond, corn-fed brethren as the embodiments of amoral vileness.
No, in Shyamster’s world, a big scary Satan with all-black eyes and evil goals is easier for moviegoers to swallow-and apparently more appealing than an actual flesh and blood human with no capacity to care whether you’re uninterested in being murdered today. No, real people can’t fly through high rises in Downtown Philly and magically short out electrical wiring and make toast fall jelly-side down (seriously-this is a plot point). No, these things can only be done by the Devil himself, and he will come to punish you for your lack of self-awareness and failure to take personal responsibility for your actions and, most of all, your UNFAIR MEAN NASTY CRITICISM OF UNAPPRECIATED FILMMAKERS WHO HAD SUCH BRILLIANT DEBUTS I MEAN YOU TOTALLY LOVED SIXTH SENSE DON’T EVEN LIE SO WHY DON’T YOU ASSH&*#ES LOVE ME ANYMORE AAAAHHHHHGGGHH?????
Um, yeah, I’ll take the murderer-inhabited steel box any day.
Melissa Lafsky has had it with these @*&% snakes on this @*&% plane.