Many of you would probably disagree with me in saying that, when done well, the Christmas season is more suited for disturbing horror than the obvious terrors of Halloween. There’s something about the under the surface, quiet loneliness, the ferocious bite of the winter air, and awkward family tension, all of which plays perfectly into IFC’s I Trapped the Devil…
…Making his impressive directorial debut is writer/director Josh Lobo, who delivers one of the quietest, slow burn horrors of the year so far with I Trapped the Devil. The film is a rather simple set up, about a man named Steve (Scott Poythress), who finds himself unexpectedly visited by his family, Matt (AJ Bowen) and Karen (Susan Burke). Having family randomly drop in on Christmas would be bad enough, but in Steve’s case, he has another problem. See, Steve has locked a man in the basement who he believes is the Devil, but is he really the Devil, or has Steve gone completely mad? Talk about uncomfortable family conversations.
I Trapped the Devil is an incredibly atmospheric film that kicks off on the right note with satanic themes and a title screen that haunts the frame. For whatever reason, Christmas horror films are often dark and gloomy affairs, and Lobo’s film gives no impression early on that it will be any different as we open on police investigating a bloody crime scene. There isn’t a funny bone in the skeleton of this brooding little horror film. I Trapped the Devil is a menacing, joyless yuletide experience, with psychological horror that sizzles and crackles like the fires of Hell.
There is a question at the center of I Trapped the Devil that had me utterly captivated. At its black core of a heart, Lobo’s film is an unnerving family drama asking how willing we would be to believe someone we love, no matter how insane they sounded. From the early moment when Matt and Karen discover that Steve has locked someone in his basement, to the final, shudder-inducing reel, Lobo and I Trapped the Devil are playing a game of “is he or isn’t he” with the audience, forcing us and the frightened couple to question all throughout whether or not Steve is insane. The cast isn’t always as convincing as you’d like, occasionally overplaying the emotion of the moment, yet Lobo still manages to capture the psychological dread necessary to establish an ultra-sense of realism that sucks the audience into the narrative. That’s no offense to the cast, but more of a compliment to Lobo’s superb writing and direction. Like Matt and Karen, the symbolism of a bolted shut door in the basement with a giant cross hanging from the decrepit wood is enough to instill a deep seeded fear that belies any thought that Steve may have wrongly kidnapped someone. Maybe he did, but the presence of that door and cinematographer Bryce Holden’s purposeful framing of it lead us to doubt that anything besides pure evil waits in that room.
Awash in dark tones of dreary grey and blood red, I Trapped the Devil modernizes the satanic colors of 70s horror, a decade rife with devil worship and cults in film. Nearly half the film takes place in the blood-soaked lighting of the basement, doing what so many theatrical horror films fail to do and creating a real atmosphere through imagery and style, not jump scares and loud noises. This is not what I would call a colorful film, yet Lobo uses color to his advantage, taking something as simple as blinking Christmas lights and using them to establish that something is not right in Steve’s home. I Trapped the Devil does get a little carried away with what I’ll call the “Devil lighting” though, as the tones during the basement scenes are so dark, so steeped in mystery, that it can be nearly impossible to make out much of what is happening most of the time. This works great at times when we’re not supposed to see what we want to, but as they say, the Devil is in the details, and viewers still need to see what’s happening when some of the more horrific events take place.
As the best psychological horror films do, I Trapped the Devil isn’t trying to make you jump with a little red devil popping out from behind the door and jabbing his pitchfork at you like some cheap 3-D monster begging for your screams on the corner. No, I Trapped the Devil earns your fear with an eerie soundtrack that creeps into your bones like a chilling, winter wind. Next to Lobo’s careful direction, composer Ben Lovett is arguably the star of the film. Lovett’s score inspires satanic images of burning crosses and cults gathering in underground temples. Lovett knows exactly when to go soft for gloomier moments, and when to ratchet the music up like a screaming banshee to scare black lumps of coal right out of the viewers. Budding composers could learn a lot from Lovett and the way he manipulates the nerves of the audience in a film which may otherwise be somewhat dull without his music.
Other than the underwhelming performances of the cast (which includes the underuse of the fabulous Jocelin Donahue), the one element that will keep I Trapped the Devil from blowing audiences out of their seats is the ultra-slow burn pacing. Keep in mind, I Trapped the Devil is supposed to move at a snail pace as it eats away at your brain bit by bit, yet unlike other satanic slow burns such as The House of the Devil (which also stars Donahue), I Trapped the Devil isn’t a stick of dynamite waiting to explode. Instead, it’s more like unwrapping that seven-foot-tall present on Christmas morning, only to discover a small wad of cash inside. Not quite the excitement you were expecting, but a rewarding finish nonetheless.
Despite all of that, I Trapped the Devil is a solid debut for Lobo. Hail Satan, because this film is a gift from Lobo and all involved, wrapped up in a small package with some rather big ideas on evil and what the Devil truly is. For those that enjoy the sort of psychological terror that leaves the mind singed, you’ll want to add I Trapped the Devil to your Christmas list immediately. And next time you’re over at a family dinner for the holidays, bored out of your mind, just be glad one of them hasn’t locked a stranger in the basement…at least, not that you know of.
I Trapped the Devil rises from Hell onto VOD from IFC on April 26th.
By Matt Konopka