I Trapped the Devil (2019)
Release Date: April 26, 2019 (Limited & VOD)
Writer-director-editor Josh Lobo makes his feature debut with “I Trapped the Devil,” a slow-burn chamber piece with the concept of a “Twilight Zone” episode and the staging of a play on film. The film sets an oppressive sense of dread and foreboding with the glow of twinkly Christmas lights a devilish counterpoint, waiting to discover if there’s actually anything sinister behind a cellar door. Drenched in mood and creepy on a conceptual level, the film might promise more than it delivers, but “I Trapped the Devil” sustains most of its unsettling juice.
Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke) drop in unannounced around Christmastime to visit Matt’s estranged brother Steve (Scott Poythress), who’s been a hermit since his divorce. Instead of being greeted with holiday cheer and warmth, Matt enters the house to find boxes blocking the door and newspapers covering the windows, and Karen finds a couple of bullets outside the house in the snow. Not expecting company, Steve doesn’t want them there, and the tension is so thick it could be cut with a knife. After the phone keeps ringing and Karen finds a loaded gun under the bed, Steve finally comes clean with them: there is a man locked behind a door with a big wooden cross in the red-tinted cellar. Steve claims the man (frighteningly voiced by Chris Sullivan) to not just be any man, but to be the devil. Before it’s too late, Matt and Karen will both have to decide if they can trust Steve or free the captive.
Confined to one house with three characters (save for two cops in the bookending scenes, as well as a hallucinatory figure and the man behind the door), “I Trapped the Devil” builds tension when Matt and Karen first hear the voice of the man behind the cellar door. As they decide what to do about the situation they’ve been forced into and have differing opinions about whether or not Steve is mentally sound, the narrative treads water a bit. That’s where the performances come in to sell the characters’ predicament. Scott Poythress is persuasive and controlled as Steve, a grieving artist who could just be a paranoid conspiracy theorist driven to madness or someone who has actually caught evil incarnate. AJ Bowen believably fleshes out the strained yet unspoken history between siblings, and Susan Burke says a lot with her face as the concerned Karen, who’s not just a passive third wheel to these brothers.
“I Trapped the Devil” is a great title, eerie in what it suggests, and to the extent of what in the film works, it proves that what’s left unseen can sometimes be even more horrifying. The film revolves around the core idea of faith and “is-he-or-isn’t-he?” question of whether or not Steve is an insane, dangerous man. Josh Lobo and cinematographer Bryce Holden prove their mettle on a budget when it comes to setting a tone and creating atmospheric imagery—the sight of an old man between the snowy noise on a TV is goosebump-inducing—and Ben Lovett’s ominous, propulsive score is enough to fray one's nerves. The final payoff is chilling, and yet it feels minimally realized, given how the film has deliberately taken its time. If “I Trapped the Devil” sometimes feels like an extended short film, it’s a promising stepping stone for Lobo, who has a great horror film in him.
Grade: B -