Like the solid B-thrillers of yore that often outshone A-pics topping double bills, M. Night Shyamalan-produced “Devil” is nothing very special or original, but it gets the job done briskly and economically. This tale of a few seemingly randomly assembled individuals getting a heavy dose of supernatural payback while stuck in a high-rise elevator should bring short-term returns sweet enough to recoup a low-end budget for a major studio release (if not its hefty advertising layout), with ancillary bringing the gravy.
More than a few wags are likely to opine that, in its lack of pretension and bloat, “Devil” gives better genre entertainment than the big-noise suspensers Shyamalan penned and helmed himself over the past decade. Indeed, as the first of three planned “Night Chronicles” pics, based on his original ideas but written and directed by others, “Devil” might help repair his rep a bit.
Scenarist Brian Nelson (“Hard Candy,” “30 Days of Night”) and director John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine”) expend just 10 minutes on setup before the central premise is running full-tilt. Those minutes are occupied by a voiceover narrator — the pic’s least necessary element — informing us that in the stories Mama used to tell him, the devil trapped the guilty in one setting before dispatching them all to you-know-where.
Usually, a suicide would be the preamble, opening the earthly gates to Satanic mischief. Indeed, first thing one downtown Philly morning, a man plunges from an office tower, leaving a note behind that name-checks a certain Antichrist. Because he lands on a parked van in an alley, the body isn’t discovered until the main event is already in progress: Five strangers enter one of the building’s elevators, which promptly and inexplicably halts halfway up.
Group consists of a smarmy salesman jerk everyone soon hates (Geoffrey Arend); a crabby old lady (Jenny O’Hara, a dead ringer for Shirley MacLaine); an intimidating temp security guard (Bokeem Woodbine); an attractive young woman (Bojana Novakovic) whose dress and manner suggest upscale living; and a scruffy ex-Marine mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green).
Initially called in to deal with the suicide, Det. Bowden (Chris Messina) swiftly gets pulled into the building staffers’ bewilderment over their elevator situation. None can figure out why the thing won’t move, and woe betide those employees who try to make it do so. Meanwhile, the nervousness and infighting among the stuck passengers turns to panic: Every time the lights flicker out (as they frequently do), something really bad happens.
Meanwhile, our narrator, security guard and fervent believer Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), keeps muttering about what Mama said the devil “always” does in these circumstances. Vargas has by far the most thankless task here, though Messina also gets his share of cumbersome must-maintain-straight-face dialogue.
For the most part, however, “Devil” moves too efficiently and snappily to be silly. Sure enough, the trapped protags turn out to be sinners of one sort or another who might merit a little hellfire. They get theirs, one by one, in PG-13 ways that aren’t especially scary but help maintain a creditable level of excitement.
Writer and helmer do a fine job keeping the audience from feeling trapped; fluid lensing and editing keep the action flowing throughout (and just outside) the building, not just in the lift.
Perfs by a low-wattage cast of mostly TV talents are solid; ditto tech and design elements. Fernando Velazquez’s orchestral score heightens the pic’s urgency without resorting to bombast.