Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Josh Lobo
Writer: Josh Lobo
Producer: Spence Nicholson, Rowan Russell, Scott Weinberg
Stars: Scott Poythress, AJ Bowen, Susan Burke, Jocelin Donahue, Chris Sullivan, Rowan Russell, John Marrott
A paranoid man claiming to have trapped the devil in his cellar encounters a new complication when his brother and sister-in-law unexpectedly visit for the holidays.
Writer/director Josh Lobo doesn’t directly credit author Charles Beaumont in plain sight, yet Lobo’s “I Trapped the Devil” is a feature film riff on Beaumont’s classic short story/”Twilight Zone” episode “The Howling Man.” If you know that plot, you’ll recognize this one too.
Matt and his wife Karen just dropped in unexpectedly on Matt’s troubled brother Steve. Matt has been worried about Steve, who remains rattled by recent trauma, and figured it was time for a welfare check disguised as an impromptu holiday visit.
The situation appears worse than anyone imagined. Steve decks out the former family home like a cross between a hoarder’s junk pile and a doomsday prepper’s shelter. Newspapers black out windows. The only light comes from a Christmas tree in the corner. Most disturbing of all is the mysteriously padlocked door in the cellar adorned with an ominous wooden cross.
Matt and Karen hear a voice on the other side of that door pleading to be released. He just wants to go home to his family, the imprisoned man says. Steve insists the voice can’t be trusted. Astonishingly, Steve says that the man is none other than the devil himself, and setting him free would release untold evil back into the world.
Matt and Karen don’t know what to do about Steve’s claim. As the night grows longer and the mood more macabre, Matt and Karen gradually become key components of a haunting atmosphere threatening to drive everyone mad.
My chief complaint with setups similar to this one is that paranoia thrillers often spend too much time on a largely pointless “is he or isn’t he crazy?” angle. Viewers who signed up for a horror movie know full well that the monster never turns out to be imaginary. Wisely, “I Trapped the Devil” only toys with this part of its premise for a brief bit. Then it rather quickly confirms, even if this man in the basement isn’t actually the devil, something evil is definitely going on.
“I Trapped the Devil” plays a lot like a theatrical production. It’s a small indie made by a first-time filmmaker essentially involving just three main actors. While two of them move to a separate room for a private conversation, the third person tiptoes around a different room for stage-setting cutaways. Given its patient pacing and dialogue-focused design, “I Trapped the Devil” may be calmer and chattier than some might want from a sinisterly satanic psychological chiller.
The movie nonetheless manages to weave a strong sense of unease through its dimly lit scenery, slowly creeping camera, and dread-inducing sounds. “I Trapped the Devil” emulates the eerie aura of films like Ti West’s “House of the Devil” by existing in a drearily undefined space with supernaturally suggestive imagery. A repeated montage of strange visuals broadcast in TV static also reveals John Carpenter’s “Prince of Darkness” as a primary influence. “I Trapped the Devil” includes enough story that it can’t qualify outright as an arthouse mood movie, although it does linger on several similar notes.
Amidst its slightly surreal dreaminess, excellent acting anchors “I Trapped the Devil” to some semblance of reality. Scott Poythress puts vulnerability behind his performance that humanizes Steve as more than a mere unstable crackpot. AJ Bowen complements him well as Steve’s brother. He doesn’t have a showy role by any means. Yet Bowen puts in more personality than exists on the page, understatedly creating a vicarious character who sells an unbelievable idea with invested authenticity.
Although it runs only 80 minutes, “I Trapped the Devil” could stand another pass in the edit bay. Considering its unspoken origin, the movie fittingly might have moved better as a 50-minute episode of Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” reboot.
As its tank of intrigue starts running low down the stretch, “I Trapped the Devil” loses attention spans by becoming overly cryptic. Due to my detailed synopses, some people probably found this review looking for “ending explained” spoilers. I have a take under the button above. However, I’m not sure you can concretely suss out the movie’s full meaning in one watch unless you have the benefit of a Q&A with the director afterward.
Even when its ambiguity becomes too much to bear, “I Trapped the Devil” keeps its head well above water with intriguing interplays, earnest intent to create something creepy, and an omnipresent tone of smoldering suspense. Its Christmas setting is relatively inconsequential, employed mainly to put colored lights and a few decorations in the background. But if nothing else, that sets up the film as a solid holiday horror alternative to the usual Santa slashers or creatures-run-amok-in-the-snow movies.
Review Score: 70