Devil, the superior, super-creepy supernatural thriller from producer M. Night Shyamalan, opens with a gorgeous aerial shot of the Philly skyline. Gorgeous, but also superbly unsettling: The city is upside down.
Skyscrapers, churches, apartment blocks - William Penn's statue atop City Hall - jut out and down above us as the camera sweeps across the city to the intense swells of Fernando Velázquez's score.
"The time," to quote the poet, "is out of joint." And the devil walks among us.
That's the scrumptious premise behind Devil, a tight, imaginative little flick about three men and two women stuck in a Center City elevator who are murdered - one by one - in inventive, gruesome ways. We learn that not only is one of them a murderer, he or she also happens to be the Prince of Darkness. But which one?
The first in a trio of "Night Chronicles," Devil was conceived by Shyamalan, who farmed out the project to a terrific team, including screenwriter Brian Nelson, who penned Ellen Page's breakout film Hard Candy and the vampire classic 30 Days of Night; and director John Erick Dowdle, who infuses Devil with the same sickening sense of claustrophobic dread that permeates his 2008 fight pic, Quarantine.
Devil, which mixes elements from disaster flicks, mysteries, police procedurals, and demonic classics such as Damien and The Exorcist, starts with a bang when an unknown office drone throws himself out a window of a high-rise at 333 Locust St. (No high-rises there in the real Philly!)
As the film's narrator, a security guard named Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) explains in voice-over, the vile vibe - the negative juices - released by the suicide prepare the way for Satan.
The archfiend is here to take care of a little errand - to gather a group of sinners, then taunt, torture, and kill them. The elevator, with its hellish Muzak, seems the perfect setting.
The filmmakers have assembled a nice ensemble of the damned, including an obnoxious, sexist mattress salesman (Geoffrey Arend); a security guard with a short fuse and a heavy right hook (Bokeem Woodbine); and a sinfully beautiful femme fatale (Bojana Novakovic).
But Devil belongs to Chris Messina as Detective Bowen, a clever, resourceful cop who vows to rescue the trapped fivesome.
Bowden has his own demons: Five years ago, his wife and toddler son were killed in a hit-and-run on Bethlehem Pike. He's just begun to pick up the pieces after going off the rails on booze, self-pity, and rage.
Nelson's economical screenplay and Messina's carefully modulated, minimalist performance save his character - and the film - from melodrama.
Devil is guaranteed to keep you on tenterhooks from beginning to end - and without much gore. Dowdle and company trade in the usual trappings of the genre for a tantalizing blend of tension, suspense, and mystery.