Who's In It: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jenny O'Hara, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven
The Basics: Five strangers are trapped in an elevator, and one of them is the Devil. They all look suspicious and they all look scared -- especially when folks start dying, one by one, whenever the lights go out. While they're busy living through hell inside the elevator, an atheist cop (Chris Messina) watches from a closed-circuit camera while an uber-Catholic security guard (Jacob Vargas) conveniently explains what the Devil's doing in a Philadelphia high-rise. What might frighten you even more than the setup itself is the fact that Devil comes from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker who's gone from being "that guy who made The Sixth Sense" to being "that guy who made Lady in the Water and The Happening and The Last Airbender."
What's The Deal: The trailer for Devil spawned an unusual phenomenon earlier this year; when it played in select multiplexes across the country, the compelling horror movie premise seemed to have audiences on the hook -- until M. Night Shyamalan's name dashed across the screen, eliciting a collective groan. (Thus was born "The Shyamalan Groan.") The good news is that Devil, which wasn't pre-screened for critics, isn't as terrible as that may suggest; taut and slickly directed, it's actually one of the more solid genre movies we've seen all year. Credit screenwriter Brian Nelson (30 Days of Night, Hard Candy) and director John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine) with keeping things simple, even the inevitable last-act twist, without resorting to ridiculous jump scares or grandiose theatrics. Shyamalan would be well served to take the note himself and go back to the basics.
Why Such A Simple Premise Works So Well: It's the classic murder-mystery scenario: When you know going in that one of these five normal-looking persons is the Devil in disguise, you spend the entire movie suspecting them all. Every glance, offhanded comment, and mundane gesture suddenly becomes a clue to who or what a person really is, giving the simplest of scenes an inborn tension. Is the volatile security guard really trying to kill you? Is that little old lady evil incarnate? How does the cute guy from The O.C. know so much about elevators, anyway?
Comparing Devil With That Other Demon-Themed Movie, The Last Exorcism: Both wring dread from a relatively basic premise involving the Devil messing with unsuspecting humans on Earth, and both draw solid performances from actors making the most out of ambiguous, simply drawn characters. The key difference is that where The Last Exorcism completely bottoms out in its final act, Devil steadily builds tension all the way through its final revelation as the characters inside the elevator and the ones on the outside meet satisfying ends.
Notes On Clever "That Guy" Casting: One subtly effective thing about Devil's cast is that it's comprised of actors you've seen before, even if you can't remember their names; it gives you the distantly familiar sense that you know these people, and yet you don't know them. Of the five potential Devils, Bookeem Woodbine's the most famous, but there's also Logan Marshall-Green, a.k.a. the cute guy from Dark Blue, The O.C., 24, and Brooklyn's Finest; Jenny O'Hara, a character actress most recently seen on Big Love, Bojana Novakovic , who played Mel Gibson's daughter in Edge of Darkness; and Geoffrey Arend, who appeared in (500) Days of Summer and is married to Mad Men's Christina Hendricks and therefore has clearly had some prior deal-making/soul-selling experience with the Devil before.