Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2010

Trapped in a mechanical screenplay. . . as well as an elevator

Magical, pseudo-omniscient narrator/character disrupts 'Devil''s tension

Devil
Universal Pictures
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Screenplay: Brian Nelson
Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jenny O'Hara and Jacob Vargas
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 20 minutes
(out of four)

Some - most? - movies that deal with the supernatural don't really know how to do supernatural. They begin with a supernatural premise, and then proceed to explain that premise in such laborious detail that it begins to seem logical, or even normal. In doing so, the filmmakers rob their own film of its inherent qualities. We might as well be watching any other run-of-the-mill procedural.

Rule of thumb: Let the supernatural be just that. Let the unexplained remain so, if at all possible. Once the rules and logic of your supernatural event are so clearly established, the extraordinary quickly becomes ordinary. Any true sense of mystery evaporates. Any possibility of atmospherics and sensory details - you know, the stuff that actually makes horror and suspense work - driving the film, rather than plot mechanics, disappears.

Devil is about five people stuck in an elevator - one of whom is the devil. That's enough information to go on right there. If the film had simply kept its exposition at that - or, perhaps better, gradually nudged us toward that realization and let us start to work things out for ourselves - that would be fine. Instead, it gives us a character who knows exactly what is going on and why, and who can guide us through it one step at a time.

Suspense - gone. Terror - irrelevant. (When things are set up this neat and tidy, it's hard to get worked up over anything.)

Countless movies start off with a myth or story to give us some pretext, but this goes way beyond pretext. It's not an abstract story, or a metaphor, or an introduction, or a hint, or a fable. No, it's a declaration: Here is what is going to happen in this story, here are all the things leading up to the main events, here is why they are happening and here is the purpose of it all.

Why does this character know this? Because his mother told him a startlingly accurate old wives' tale when he was a kid, that's why. The character in question is a security guard played by Jacob Vargas, and he serves no purpose whatsoever except to explain the movie's internal logic - both in voiceover form, between scenes ("Now, kids, THIS is going to happen!"), and in dialogue with the police officer hero (Chris Messina) who's trying to figure out what's going on.

Oh, and you'll never believe this, but the police officer hero is also a recovering alcoholic who lost his faith in God because his wife and kid were killed in a hit-and-run accident.

Nothing quite like an appearance from Satan himself to put our faithless hero to the test, eh? Screenwriters just love that crap.

But I digress. Admittedly, for this movie's specific hook to work, we need to know at least a little bit - but surely a clever writer can come up with a handy way to explain such a simple premise without resorting to a convenient character who knows all. ("What's that? One of these five people is the devil, you say? Thanks, Captain Exposition!")

What Devil loses in atmosphere and ambiguity, it gains in tedium. Little spats break out between the five potential devils as they start to mistrust one another, and eventually start dying. We're given easy-to-recognize hints about each character - something to convince us they couldn't possibly be the devil, followed inexorably by a little detail that momentarily convinces us, "Aha! Yes, it must be him/her after all! Look how guilty he/she is!" But by its mechanical nature, none of it is very convincing, and we sit impatiently waiting for the inevitable twist.

And when we find out who our devil is, it turns out to be quite an incompetent one. And talky, too! (Take my soul, please! Just stop talking about it!) Devil is a tight little thriller - only about 80 minutes in run time - that has its moments, but would have had more with a real director. And if its idea of sound design had gotten past "things banging around in the dark." After the screening, a friend of mine said, half-affectionately and half-mockingly, "That wasn't the worst movie in the world." A point on which I completely agree. So let it be said on the record: Devil is not the worst movie in the world. Take that for what you will.

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