It was Baudelaire who wrote the original form of the quote warning readers the Devil’s greatest trick was persuading us he does not exist, before it was paraphrased by The Usual Suspects. Yet, it was Charles Beaumont who really made hay with the idea with his short story “The Howling Man,” and his subsequent adaptation for a fan-favorite Twilight Zone episode. Director-screenwriter Josh Lobo riffs on Beaumont’s premise in his feature debut, I Trapped the Devil, which opens this Friday in New York.
It was Karen’s idea to visit Matt’s estranged brother Steve on Christmas—and boy, is he surprised—but not exactly welcoming. Frankly, he wants them out, for reasons that soon become apparent. He has a pathetic-sounding man locked up in his basement. Of course, Steve is convinced he has Satan trapped, just like John Carradine in the Zone. Initially, Matt and Karen are convinced his brother is barking mad, but she slowly starts to have her doubts (or rather, she starts to halfway believe).
Despite what he says, the man in the fortified closet just seems to radiant evil to the sensitive Karen. She is also unnerved by the constant telephone calls that Steve believes are coming from the evil one’s minions and worshippers. This is in fact Lobo’s best innovation on Beaumont, so it is frustrating that he never really develops it.
Lobo was part of the art and design team that crafted the visually brilliant Dave Made a Maze, so it is almost shocking how dingy and prosaic Trapped looks, but one could argue it is appropriate to the story. Regardless, it sorely lacks the two advantages the Howling Man episode had: Beaumont and brevity. Even with a running time under ninety minutes, Lobo’s is-he-or-isn’t-he guessing game quickly runs out of steam. The truth is glaringly obvious and Matt’s utter lack of intuition really starts to try our patience.
AJ Bowen has been one of the most reliable thesps regularly appearing in genre films for the last decade or so, but he cannot do much to engage with the audience as the rather plodding Matt. In contrast, Scott Poythress is a bundle of neuroses as Steve, but in ways that are tragically and acutely human. Susan Burke also convincingly takes Karen on a character development arc to Hell.
As viewers watch Trapped, they are likely to start feeling a claustrophobic sensation, but not in the right way. If you openly invoke a television and short fiction classic, you really should bring your A-game, but this is just some warmed-over demonic porridge. Not recommended, I Trapped the Devil opens this Friday (4/26) in New York, at the IFC Center.