I Trapped The Devil: Explained- A Diabolically Complex Film
I Trapped The Devil written and directed by Josh Lobo and distributed by IFC Midnight takes a premise straight out of The Twilight Zone and puts John Carpenteresque spin on it. A twist on the classic tale The Howling Man by Charles Beaumont requires the viewer to both blindly trust and answer the age-old moral question of time travel. If you could go back in time and kill Hitler would you or should you do it? There are elements of both the ethical dilemma involved with helping your deranged brother cage the Devil(maybe) or turning him over to the authorities. It’s hard to describe this movie without referencing John Carpenters’ Prince of Darkness, David Lynch’s Lost Highways, or Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. It is that enigmatic and equal in quality to those comparisons. For lovers of the ambiguous, I Trapped The Devil will fill that niche.
Matt and Karen, a married couple, show up unannounced at a family member’s house at night at Christmas. Just as the famous Twilight Zone episode starts, so does this film. Steve initially tries to turn Karen and Matt away just as David Ellington is turned away by the monks. It’s a nice bit of symmetry to start from that slinks into a new dark corner. The couple is there to see Steve, Matt’s brother. He has been the caretaker of his parent’s house since an undefined tragedy. The brothers have clearly been estranged for some time. Steve acts nervous from the beginning, and his odd behavior escalates as he attempts to convince his brother and sister-in-law that he has managed to trap the Devil in a room in the basement. In between the scant dialogue that comes in fits and starts from a very agitated Steve the phone rings strangely and a strange woman appears on a television with little (i.e. no) explanation. Whether he has really caught Satan, or he is unhinged is not made clear until the very end.
Sparse dialogue and setting are used efficiently to produce a blanket of tension that covers everything. Dread permeates every scene. Christmas lights that are traditionally such a warm and joyful addition to the holidays are used with simple colored light bulbs to instead create a garish quality to what should otherwise be an ordinary house. The entire house is filled with rooms pulled right from a manic’s guide to hoarding. There is too much stuff everywhere. Every corner is crammed with papers and books and relics from another era. Minimal standard lighting is employed except for the attic which has such bright desk lamps they make things look and feel even creepier than the rooms poorly lit. The use of a television straight from the 1980’s sitting on red milk crates is disconcerting even before it turns on by itself and begins showing technicolor images of a mysterious woman. You expect at any moment Freddy Krueger’s tongue will protrude out of an ancient wall phone that keeps ringing randomly. More ominously, whoever is on the other line is never heard. What they said, if they said anything at all, is left to the imagination, and this movie asks your paranoia to be the driving force. Mine was obliged to work overtime.
Scott Poythress(Steve) is phenomenal. He delivers such a fevered, fidgety performance by the time he reveals his war room filled with seemingly unrelated newspaper clippings you are looking over your shoulder right along with him. His nervous energy is intoxicating to both Matt and Karen on screen and the audience. Steve is troubled. There is no doubt that he has always been a little different and the brothers, although bound by a chasm of history have an undercurrent of frustration and love. It is a well-defined familiar relationship that is believable and relatable.
A.J. Bowen(Matt) creates a lot with very little. In the hands of a lesser actor, Matt would be paper thin and dull. His lack of urgency coupled with an obvious affection for his brother helps produce an atmosphere that is both surreal and frustrating(in a good way). Both Matt and Karen downplay their growing fear and instead become complacent in a possible kidnapping. At one point with an armed mad man who has already pointed a gun at them once and the source of all Evil right below them, they take a nap. Moments of complete absurdity like this make this movie work. They are stressed out, tired from the drive, and committed to helping Steve, so a nap weirdly makes sense. You get lost in this dreary house with the trio all the while screaming at them to get out!
The Explained and The Unexplained SPOILERS AHEAD
Does Steve really have the Devil locked up? Kudos to Lobo for answering that question early on without giving away all the goods. There most definitely is something evil in the basement. Who knows if it’s the Devil or just a demon. It doesn’t really matter as the results are the same. The trickster locked in the basement is anything he or she needs to be for each person. Some might need to see a beloved friend or family member, others an innocent person. The lesson is the same. Sometimes people who behave abnormally aren’t crazy. They are the sane ones who have been let in on a secret to large for them to carry.
Just as in TheTwilight Zone’s episode 41 The Howling Man, the Devil’s most powerful tool is man’s inability to see the truth. A turning point in the film that showcases just how far down the rabbit hole Steve has gone reveals a full connection map in the attic. It’s at that moment that you begin to believe Steve even if you don’t know why yet. The seed of belief is planted right along with the Devil’s seed of doubt. All the missing children chronicled on Steve’s wall paint the picture that later plays out on screen. Some of those children come back, but not always the same. At the time, it seemed like the insane ramblings of a man who had lost all sense of reality. By the final frame, it becomes a concisely packaged truth that we missed.
The gravelly-voiced man in the basement is not the same carefree girl skipping out of the house and down the block, but it may be one of the many faces from Steve’s wall. Likely the phone calls were coming from the Devil who also managed to channel(pun intended) the television. If you discredit your detractors, no one will trust them. By driving Steve mad, the Devil secures his chance at release. Yet another trick from the master of deception who may always be one step ahead of us. There is an ancient folk saying: “You can catch the Devil, but you can’t hold him long.” I Trapped The Devil is out April 26th, 2019 on VOD anywhere you stream.