“I Trapped the Devil” sounds like the title of a sermon or gospel song, but it’s a very literal-minded statement coming from the mouth of a leading character in writer-director Josh Lobo’s debut feature. This being a horror film, there’s a chance he’s even literally correct, rather than simply mad. A mixed-bag frightfest, IFC’s limited theatrical release doesn’t ultimately provide quite enough reward for a slow buildup. But it proves Lobo an able helmer (if one who could probably use a co-writer next time), eking decent atmospherics and good performances within a potentially claustrophobic premise.
In a framing device, two policemen break into a seemingly empty house where something is intangibly amiss. As they’re just about to find out what that is, the film jumps back several hours earlier, when others are arriving at the same house. Matt (AJ Bowen) and wife Karen (Susan Burke) have shown up unannounced around Christmastime at the rambling old place he presumably grew up in, concerned about the welfare of his incommunicado brother Steve (Scott Poythress), who still lives here. He’s not happy about the intrusion, immediately ordering them to leave, which directive they simply ignore.
After a while (in which Karen pokes around upstairs, finding a loaded gun under a bed), Matt takes his brother aside to tell him what’s really going on. This confiding is enough to convince Matt that, “There’s something wrong with Steve. He might be dangerous.” After all, he’s got a “man in the basement,” and is claiming that person is no less than the Devil — or at least “something evil” that’s “conjured itself into the shape of a man.” It is soon duly sussed that there is someone locked behind a door and calling for help in the cellar.
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It is naturally assumed that Steve has snapped tether, trapping some poor soul in his delusional state. An attic whose walls are lined with crazy-conspiracy-theory “evidence,” windows covered over with newspaper, crosses everywhere, and his own manic demeanor suggest as much. But when Karen slips off at one point to secretly release the captive, she too experiences some primal terror that stops her short.
“I Trapped the Devil” undergoes a certain slackening in tension around the two-thirds point, just before the climactic action begins. But a bigger problem is that Lobo’s script doesn’t deliver quite enough payoff, either in revealing what’s behind that cellar door, or illuminating the murkily-hinted-at family issues in the brothers’ shared past. The three principal actors are fine, but they could have been given a bit more character substance to chew on, and it’s not as though the film doesn’t have the time to provide it. As is, “Trapped” doesn’t develop its own ideas sufficiently that the story mightn’t have fit just as well into a one-hour or even half-hour TV horror omnibus format.
Nonetheless, it’s well-crafted, particularly given the potential pitfalls of a narrative basically limited to one interior in which not much happens until the last act. As director and editor, Lobo gets a lot out of that little, maintaining a credible, skeptical, character-focused yet ominous mood. Visually, the film has considerable flair: DP Bryce Holden’s lensing makes vivid use of colored lighting gels, while production designer Karleigh Engelbrecht and art director Sage Alice Griffin lend the house interior quite a bit of personality — no contribution going over the line into over-stylized excess. Veteran indie-film composer Ben Lovett (“Sun Don’t Shine,” “The Wind,” “The Signal”) contributes a strong score.
Indeed, nearly every individual component to “I Trapped the Devil” is sufficiently capable that one wishes the script had gone that extra mile to make those elements combine into something memorable, as opposed to just passably diverting.