By: Hawk Ripjaw (Two Beers) –
On a chilly winter evening around Christmas, Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke) pay a surprise visit to Matt’s estranged brother Steve (Scott Poythress). It’s been some time since they’ve met up, and Steve’s reaction to the visit is one of surprise and suspicion. He tells them they can’t stay. Matt is worried for his brother’s mental health, so he insists on spending some time together. Steve finally reveals to Matt that he has trapped a man in his basement—the Devil himself. A low voice from behind the door begs to be freed, but Steve starts to sway Matt when he takes him to a room in the house wallpapered with newspaper articles and red string. Steve rationalizes that the Devil is responsible for much of the evil in the world, and ever since Steve captured him, some of that evil has started to drain from it. It’s very clear that Steve is troubled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Satan isn’t the owner of the sinister-sounding voice from behind the door in the basement.
The budget for I Trapped the Devil could not have been very high, but writer/director Josh Lobo has a clear skill for getting as much as possible out of that money. The movie is absolutely dripping in dreadful atmosphere, owing to excellent production design that executes a show-don’t-tell approach to Steve’s mental state. The house is in disarray, newspapers blocking out the windows and boards blocking egress. Cobwebs hang from light fixtures and Christmas lights are everywhere, creating a sinister mood. That mood gets progressively more uneasy and painful as the film goes on and all three of the characters begin to lose their grip on sanity. The phone keeps ringing, and the television displays static with flashes of a mysterious woman.
Bryce Holden’s cinematography amplifies the creeping dread, drenching several shots with a dark red hue. He mixes uneasy close-up shots mostly for emotive effect with Steve, and longer takes that include all three characters for conversations. Some of these long takes really pull good performances from Poythress, Donahue and Bowen, and give good flavor to the characters in the moment. The performances and the writing feel authentic, and Poythress in particular radiates a nervous, desperate energy that drives home the sense of grief that has turned him into the paranoid person he is now.
The score, by Ben Lovett, is another strong element, big and ominous with clear retro inspiration but a perfect pairing with the mood of the film. A central montage that really begins to emphasize Steve’s decline as well as a piece near the end of the film are two of the standouts in the score, matching extremely well with Lobo’s engaging direction.
I Trapped the Devil skates on the fringes some of its themes where delving into them more could have added just a bit more substance. There’s quite a lot of thematic meat here, and the less-is-more approach to actually tackling it works well for parts of the film. Some of the tertiary elements of the night—the ringing phone, the television—don’t get much exploration or explanation, and end up adding creepy flavor. The man behind the door in the basement is handled incredibly well, culminating in a very chilling finale. On the other hand, the dynamic between Steve and Matt doesn’t feel like it has quite enough subtext and the there-to-here of their relationship doesn’t give enough impact to care for them. The sense of grief and loss is there, but for it to be as all-encompassing and transformative as has happened to Steve, it doesn’t quite take it all the way.
A lot of I Trapped the Devil’s minimalist approach works surprisingly well for most of its 82 minute runtime. It’s got a grim mood, a steady rise of slow-burn unease, and technical elements that make the most of its small budget. Sometimes, that slow burn is just a little bit too slow and by the end the movie feels a bit like a short that’s been overextended. Some of the plot and background could have used a bit more fleshing out to give the story more momentum, and a few stretches of not much happening hamper the film’s ambitious exploration of grief and paranoia. The way Lobo went for blending the premise with those themes is fascinating and headier than what this genre usually offers. He has a way of aiming high that makes his future projects very exciting. I Trapped the Devil is an atmospheric and engrossing horror worth watching.
I Trapped the Devil (2019) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever sanity is questioned.
Do a Shot: every time the phone rings.
Take a Drink: whenever the man speaks.
Take a Drink: every time the stakes go up again.
I Trapped the Devil is available on VOD and limited theatrical release from on April 26th.