It’s a Bad Night for Everyone After I TRAPPED THE DEVIL

Full Disclosure: I have met and had a few pleasant, brief interactions online and in real life with Scott Weinberg, a producer on this film. In no way does this impact my reaction to this film.

A grim Christmas fable that boils the apocalypse down to its most intimate dimensions, I Trapped the Devil locks three unstable individuals in a house with a loaded gun and a dangerous…something…on the other side of a locked door and slowly winds its way towards an explosive finish. Admirably bleak and startlingly effective at times, I Trapped the Devil doesn’t entirely come together but still serves as a major announcement for a strong new voice in horror.

I Trapped the Devil opens with the Christmas season in full swing as Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke) make a surprise visit to Matt’s brother Steve (Scott Poythress). The brothers were once close, but some unspoken rift has opened and kept the two apart for years. Even so, neither Matt nor Karen is prepared for the hollow-eyed ruin they discover puttering around the large, empty house like a living ghost.

Everyone tries to play nice for appearances’ sake, but it’s not long before Steve sits his brother down and confesses to the source of his paranoia and disquiet: The Devil is real, and Steve has him imprisoned in the basement.

It’s an intriguing set-up for a horror film (and one that will be immediately familiar to fans of the classic George Beaumont-penned Twilight Zone episode, “The Howling Man”), but it’s also something of a limiting one. Writer/director Josh Lobo (in his feature debut) essentially has three, and only three, outcomes from a set-up like that:

  1. Steve actually caught the Devil.
  2. Steve is crazy.
  3. The movie is going to tease out whether it’s the Devil or not for the entire movie and end on a cliffhanger.

To his credit, Lobo quickly tips his hand into which direction things are going and moves on to other things, chiefly establishing a mood of all-consuming dread as Steve is swallowed by his paranoia and distress while Matt and Karen steadily come apart under the strain of what Steve has done. Even on what must have been a shoe-string budget, Lobo manages to burn images onto the screen that will linger and haunt you for a long while after the film has finished, a sustained unease that’s helped enormously by the score from composer Ben Lovett and the cinematography from Bryce Holden.

In Holden’s case, the basement where Steve has his prisoner locked up also serves as a darkroom, so every scene taking place down there is suffused in high-contrast red-and-blacks. Any time one of our protagonists wanders downstairs, you could drown in the disquiet, and as the film starts to go into waking nightmare overdrive, Holden, Lovett, and Lobo conjure images of low-fi disquiet that made my skin absolutely crawl.

The cast certainly shows up to play. AJ Bowen has amassed a weighty genre resume, and he provides a painfully human face to the terrors both existential and immediate that beset him once he sets foot inside that house. Poythress is one of those guys who’s been bouncing around the industry for years, and this is a rare lead turn for him. He goes at it with full gusto, really selling the ebbs and flows of Steve’s mania, and the resulting exhaustion when the zealotry starts to burn out. As the outside observer to the brothers’ dynamic, Burke’s got a very tricky character, and her evolving reaction towards what Steve has done is some of the most surprising, unsettling material in the film.

But all three feel somewhat short-changed, which is odd given the intimate scope of the film and the short (80 minutes) runtime. The film repeatedly hints that ‘something’ happened to drive an immovable wedge between these people and send Steve careening into holy madness. But Lobo refuses to pull back the curtain and reveal the full shape of what is eating these people from the inside out.

On the one hand, I admire that decision and understand how it fits into that waking nightmare aesthetic I mentioned above. Early in the film, Steve handwaves away a question as to how he pulled off capturing and imprisoning a person, let alone the Devil himself, and that sets a tone for the rest of the film, letting you know that things will not be tied into distressingly tidy bows the way they are in more mainstream fare.

But that choice also leaves the film off-balance, especially as it hurtles towards a climax. The fraying of the relationship between the brothers doesn’t mean as much because we have no sense of how Bowen and Poythress ever fit together as a functional pair, and the various mind-games and imaginings that plague our protagonists don’t impact the way they probably should and could because we don’t have a context for why Character X is seeing Thing Y and having Reaction Z.

Lobo keeps a tight control of his craft as things ratchet towards their conclusion, and I Trapped the Devil takes some major swings in how it ties things together and wraps up. I’m not convinced it totally works, particularly Lobo’s final decision with regards to what is or is not behind that basement door, but there’s an audacity and ambition to what he and his team have built here that I can’t help but admire.

While many horror films portray evil in the world, I Trapped the Devil ponders the nature of evil itself and asks whether it is something foisted upon the human race or rather a natural element that has existed forever and will continue to do so. That’s heady stuff for any film, let alone a low budget horror entry, and watching Lobo grapple with these notions of guilt and faith made me happy to forgive whatever the film’s failings might be.

Ultimately, I Trapped the Devil is defiantly its own thing from first moment to last, and I would say all horror fans should make time for it. If nothing else, I fully expect Lobo will connect the dots with one of his future films and create something truly indelible. I Trapped the Devil might end up feeling more like an appetizer, but it promises a helluva meal to come.

I Trapped the Devil is available in select theaters and on VOD on April 26, 2019.

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