Monday 4 October 2010

Shyamalan Mountains

Devil 2010 US
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Screening at UK cinemas now

Warning! Devilishly revealing spoilers reside within this post!

Get ready for an elevator descent into the bowels of hell that will shake you by the seat of your pants in a thrillride of uncontrollable devilishness and terror...

I went into the new movie written by M. Night Shyamalan (but directed by John Erick Dowdle) really hoping for a movie which would live up to something like the pitch I just wrote above. To be honest though, given my track record for the appreciation of Mr. Shyamalan’s movies I was kinda expecting it to just be nice to look at and that was about it. As it turns out I was wrong... but I’ll get to that later.

Let me backtrack and tell you why I don’t expect too much from this guy anymore... it’s basically because he has a reputation for writing or directing movies with an amazing twist... and he rarely delivers... not many mountain peaks with his work, just the odd valley now and again. Okay, just let me get this guy off my chest for a bit... skip a paragraph (or seven) if you don’t want to hear this... it’s gonna get ranty!

My first experience of this guy was with his movie The Sixth Sense. I saw this at Barnet Cinema on its release and, frankly, I was really disappointed that there was no twist at the end. Seriously, people didn’t know Brucey was dead? It’s made pretty implicit from the opening and from the way the rest of the scenes are shot that this is the case... by the time you are in the restaurant (about, what... 20 mins into the movie) then you should have figured that one out. Consequently, you sit through the movie wondering why Bruce Willis hasn’t realised this yet! Nice music though, so it’s a pleasant enough watch.

Then came Unbreakable. That was ok. Was actually surprised when Sam Jackson turned out to be the super-villain... that’s the only time that Shyamalan actually surprised me. That was good. I don’t like to figure out the twist before it comes. So that towers above the rest of his work for me and I was expecting great things of this man who had built his reputation on, let’s be honest here, big budget The Twilight Zone episodes... and no disrespect to the man here, I like The Twilight Zone... but the twist needs to be a little more consistent.

Bearing in mind this instant twist mentality that unfortunately grew out of expectations of this writer/director’s work, the next film was aggravating. Signs was the movie where I really lost my rag with Shyamalan... and I love alien stories and am totally freaked out by any tales of little grey men from another planet/dimension. But Signs was the movie where I spent the entire bloody movie trying to figure out what the twist was... because it obviously couldn’t be aliens could it? Where’s the twist in that? They’re right there on the screen! So what’s the twist then... come on... oh, credits roll!

Alright that was a low point but then it got worse. The Village was the Shyamalan movie where I twigged the ending twist right from the second shot of the film. Wow. Way to telegraph your ending Mr. S! So there you have a shot of an “olde worlde” community at a funeral as an establishing shot. Shot number two is a reverse of that establishing shot where you get to see a name on the tombstone and a date placing it 100s of years in the past... except Shyamalan makes a real point of showing you this rather than putting a caption up on the screen... and that’s, of course, when you realise that the reason he’s kinda drawn your attention to this and not put a caption up on the screen is that he doesn’t want to be called out as a liar for telling you this movie is set in the past. He wants you to “notice” the date on the tombstone and hoodwink yourself into taking it as a fact... so it must be a lie then, right? Obvious answer can be concluded from that. Oh, c’mon. Did anyone fall for that one... so right from the second shot in you start to wonder how long it’s going to take certain of the characters to figure out they’re living in the 20th (or 21st) century and, frankly, it’s boring to wait the whole length of the feature for one of them to twig! But again, really excellent music and it kinda looked nice.

Okay, I missed Lady In The Water... it only played a week but I was willing to give it a go. Not heard good things about it but would have liked to have sampled the score.

And then we had The Happening... really great set up. Really intriguing trailer too. But no twist ending or, in this case, simple answer. Just a flight of fancy as an excuse which had frankly already been discussed by the characters in detail at the start of the movie... it’s like the geezah was just throwing his hands up in the air and saying... “Look, I’m going to tell you how this movie is going to end now so you can just watch the way the shots play out!”... except I wasn’t willing to believe the film would wind up with such a wishy-washy conclusion so it was kind of a let-down really.

And I didn’t bother with The Last Airbender because I’ve not seen the original TV show.

And so we come to Devil... a film which, to be fair, is only based on a story by him... he didn’t direct it or write the screenplay, although I suspect a lot of him found its way into the production one way or another.

Now I wasn’t expecting too much of Devil because people have not responded favourably to it... but I liked the trailer (although I’d been caught out by that one before). And I got some of the things I was expecting from a Shyamalan branded film... specifically some loosely sketched but sympathetic and convincing characters bolstered up by some fine performances by a strong cast of actors which are themselves supported by an extremely fine score. And I got loads of stuff I wasn’t expecting from him thrown into the mix too... taut and compelling suspense, some nice shock moments and generally a satisfying and well plotted entry into the “religious horror” category.

Sure there were some problems... you know one of the people stuck in the lift is the Devil and before very much screen time has passed you’ll be able to figure out which one - and you just know what the devil will do to avert suspicion. And there’s also a problem with the denouement of the movie in that it’s almost a retelling of two of the character’s histories in Signs if I’m remembering that movie correctly.

But there’s some great stuff in it too. Asides from the string heavy (as appropriate for the Devil) score there’s some wonderful editing tricks going on. Like when one character gets electrocuted in the basement of the building... you know it’s going to happen but the director knows you know, so he - remember that scene in both the Hitchcock version of The 39 Steps and Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West where a character points a loaded gun at the camera and as it’s about to fire we cut to a train screaming along some tracks and the visceral shock of the loud sound juxtaposed with the previous shot makes your head fill in the sound of the gunshot where it should have been? Well a similar thing is accomplished here with the electrocution scene and some similar little edits in the film make the running time of the movie a joy to watch... the devil’s in the detail after all.

All in all a good little horror movie, suitable for Christmas holiday late night viewing and the first installment in a trilogy of Shyamalan branded films which may or may not get made - depending on whether this does the business on DVD is my guess. One of the peaks on the celluloid range of the Shyamalan Mountains... Step into the elevator if you’re feeling a little tired. Next stop... going down!

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