Some people are thinkers, some people are doers; guess which ones get in over their head more often? For the bozos in I Trapped the Devil who somehow manage to snare the physical manifestation of pure evil and lock it up, it might have been helpful to have something resembling a plan. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t seem to know what to do with its own intriguing premise either, and the result is a frustrating exercise in anticipation for payoffs that never come.
There is early promise, as Matt and Karen arrive at a gloomy house to spend Christmas with his brother, Steve. There’s an obvious tension in the air between the two men, remnants of a vague former unpleasantness draped heavily over the stilted interactions. Regardless of that, however, there is clearly something even more sinister up with the shifty-eyed Steve, who goes from soft deflections to lashing out in a flash, and stares blankly at his soup like an alien who doesn’t understand the concept. It doesn’t take long for the secret to being divulged: Steve has imprisoned a man in the basement behind a door sporting a large, wooden cross — and he believes it is the Devil himself.
The efficient opening puts I Trapped the Devil in a position for great horror potential; which way will it go? Will there be philosophical debates on the nature of evil, whether it’s even possible to contain such a force? Or could this play out like a game of cat and mouse, where three lowly humans must outwit the craftiest of opponents, must out-deceive the greatest deceiver the world has ever known? There are chances to reveal flaws, exploit weaknesses, sow distrust, expose old wounds, and explore the age-old folly of humans daring to challenge higher beings. Writer-director Josh Lobo creates an eerie setting as a backdrop, a rats-nest of a home that implies a desperate struggle for survival, with a CRT television thrown in just for good measure (and maybe some Poltergeist/Videodrome vibes too). There are even a few nicely startling shots early on, such as the sudden illumination of Christmas lights while a character indulges in a smoke.
I Trapped the Devil seems poised to unleash itself during this intriguing and atmospheric buildup. The mystery of how this all came to be need not be explained — it’s what follows that’s important. Curiously, however, the story widely eschews diving too deep into any of its opportunities, instead opting for long stares and curt dialogue followed by maddening silences (also, nearly every conversation aches with awkward pauses). Lobo may have thought the ambiguity these characters produce would make for something more contemplative, but it has the opposite effect; the less these people say, the less interesting they — and their predicament — get.
The situation is not helped by the almost complete lack of action that accompanies the hush; everyone seems to be waiting for someone else to make a move — a brooding standoff that indulges in neither inner nor outer conflicts. Steve wallows in depression over some family tragedy only hinted at, Karen occasionally snoops around the house and uncovers little of value, and Matt sloshes whiskey trying his best to look intellectually torn. Normal human reactions to such an event — be it skepticism, shock, fear, or panic — are largely glossed over so that reasonable behavior like calling the police or simply fleeing are conveniently avoided in favor of stasis. Meanwhile, there’s this whole other character whose voice emanates from behind that locked door, but is rarely given the chance to interact with his captors.
It’s obvious that I Trapped the Devil wanted to shy away from sensational horror in favor of a more haunting experience, and commendably so, but it overplays this hand by showing so few of its cards. No doubt there was some inspiration drawn from a 1960 Twilight Zone episode called “The Howling Man” (adapted by Charles Beaumont from his own short story), about a traveler who discovers that a group of European monks have similarly imprisoned a man they claim to be Satan. But where that version engaged its characters in a clear and active struggle over morality and belief, I Trapped the Devil only briefly mentions possible directions it could take before ultimately shrinking from the pressure that making a narrative choice imposes. Someone needs to do something.
That perpetual sloth leads to an ending that quickly fizzles out, as there is little foundation made for any emotional or intellectual resolution — action too little too late, dulled at impact. Lobo continues to point his camera in interesting directions throughout, doing his best to maintain those early creepy vibes, but it’s just too bad that he doesn’t have much to show. I Trapped the Devil might capture audiences early on, but without a plan, it probably won’t hold them long.