Sitting in the multiplex several weeks ago, I experienced a crowd reaction to a trailer that confirmed my long-held suspicion: M. Night Shmaylan is a public relations liability, and his involvement in any project would be best kept secret. Case in point, as we waited for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to start, a trailer for Devil played. Here it is:
The audience sat silent until the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” spread across the screen. Suddenly, the packed house erupted into a mixture of laughter, gaffaws, and boos. A nerdy middle-aged man in front of me uttered something to the effect of, “He needs to go away.” The attempt to use Shyamalan’s name to market the film clearly fell flat with this crowd.
Like the rest of the audience, I’m a Shyamalan skeptic. I loved The Sixth Sense and found Unbreakable, while less satisfying, thoughtful and stylish enough to get me on board. Despite it’s critical success, Signs became the turning point in my fandom for the writer/director. Like his previous projects, Signs attempted to replicate that Spielberg magic of science fiction nerdiness and wholesome sentimentality. The end-result was a heavy handed film that neither surprised me with it’s goofy twist (“Swing away”!) nor entertained me with it’s attempts at humor from the wooden lead, Mel Gibson:
I felt I’d been manipulated and cheated, and immediately decided that Shyamalan’s schtick had worn thin. I have since ignored his films, and from what I hear, I haven’t missed much: The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening received successively worse reviews from critics and viewers alike. Over-exposure and under-delivery have undermined the hype surrounding Shyamalan’s work, so it’s difficult to imagine what the marketing department was thinking when they plastered his name on the promos for the otherwise flawlessly promoted Devil.
What’s surprised me is that in spite of my reservations about Shyamalan’s previous films, I’m actually very curious about Devil. The minimalist concept (five people trapped in an elevator, the devil among them) appeals to me, and while the whole thing could easily run afoul, the potential for a terrific thriller is there. It’s also worth noting that while the trailer plays up the Shyamalan association, his role in the production is vaguely defined with a “story by” credit. In other words, it’s hard to gauge Shyamalan’s level of involvement, given that the screenwriter (Brian Nelson) and directors (Drew and John Erick Dowdle) likely took liberties with whatever idea Shyamalan ostensibly conceived (not to mention the many other filmmakers participating in the project).
In short, I’m willing to give this thing a chance with the hope that Shyamalan’s fingerprints have been wiped clean from the finished product. Then again, maybe the last thing we need is a Shyamalan success to reboot the hype machine.