[CFF 2019 Review] I Trapped the Devil

Wind howls as the cold open introduces a boarded up door with a charcoal drawing of something demonic nailed to it. Seconds later, two police officers burst through, shining flashlights and asking if anyone’s home. While the house is decorated for Christmas, it looks anything but festive. Lights flicker, the Christmas lights giving the room a demonic red hue and a TV set to static grabs the cops’ attention before it fades to black and we’re shown the stark, Gothic title cards.

Then we’re presumably back to before whatever happened in that house happened. Karen (Susan Burke) and Matt (AJ Bowen) pull up in front of a nice house on a wintry night. While Matt goes in, Karen anxiously waits outside and makes a curious discovery: bullet casings in the snowy ground. Meanwhile, Matt explores the interior and finds the Christmas lights in odd contrast to the dark house, with its newspaper-covered windows. He then finds his brother Steve (Scott Poythress), who looks jumpy. Cagey. Haunted.

Steve tells Matt and Karen that they can’t stay here, even though they drove a long distance to be with him. It’s the holidays and it’s evident that even though their parents have been dead for some period of time, Steve still isn’t handling it too well. The TV is set to static but the static sometimes seems to suggest a woman’s form. The phone keeps ringing and each time he answers it, Steve seems shook.

“Anybody follow you here?” Steve asks. He’s obviously paranoid. Matt is trouble by his behavior. And that’s before Steve shows him the door in the basement. The one that’s bolted and padlocked with a makeshift cross hung on it. On the other side of the door is the devil, according to Steve. And while his prisoner has a deep, gravelly voice, he just sounds like a regular man, parched and scared.

What follows is a slow burn story of paranoia, as Matt and Karen wrestle with the fact that Steve might have lost it. That he might be dangerous. And that, by doing nothing, he just implicated them in his crimes. Or…maybe he really has trapped Satan himself.

Written, directed and edited by Josh Lobo, I Trapped the Devil operates in minimalism, utilizing a single location and lots of atmosphere. It works because it relies on fantastic sound design. Ben Lovett’s score is more evidence that the man who sold the horror in The Wind and The Ritual understands the importance of music in horror. Those two films utilized music and sound perfectly to create tension and put that feeling of dread in your stomach. With I Trapped the Devil operating in minimalism, the music is even more important in establishing tension and Lovett’s score melds with the sound effects to create an underlying dread that percolates through the entire film. It pulses, mixing ambient noises and thudding bass.

The use of color and lighting also sets the mood. The house is oppressively dark, with the only glimpses of light coming from random lamps and Christmas lights. It gives the movie a very claustrophobic feel. At times, the red lights strewn along the house are used to light the room with a devilish red hue. It’s very moody, which is important because the film doesn’t really show its hand until the third act and, even then, is still more of a subtle affair.

Complementing this are strong character performances by AJ Bowen, Susan Burke and Scott Poythress and the seductive voice behind the locked door. The unseen voice adds that unknown to the equation as it seems both frightened and malicious…often at the same time. At one point, I almost expected the voice to ask Karen if she’d like to live deliciously.

As the characters argue about how to handle the situation, Steve relies on faith and the ever-important “what if” question to try to get his brother on his side. While Karen begins staunchly on the side of rationality, Matt finds himself somewhere in the middle…partly because he feels responsible, in some ways, for the state Steve is in. But there’s also the lingering question of, “Well…what if?”

Not that Steve’s evidence is very helpful, as Matt discovers when he is shown Steve’s for-lack-of-a-better-word wall of crazy. It looks like that popular Always Sunny gif taken to an insane degree. Red thread connecting pictures of missing people. His proof is that, after he trapped the being in the basement, a missing girl returned home. He believes that while there is man-made evil in the world, there is also that unknowable evil. Pure evil. The kind that, for no reason, would make a person kidnap someone or kill someone just to watch them suffer. And, if that’s the case, what if he can stop it by trapping the man in the basement?

For the most part, I really enjoyed this debut feature film. The second act kind of loses momentum for me, unfortunately. Some parts stretch the idea of slow burn to the breaking point, as needless montages of Steve dancing and Karen and Matt looking concerned kind of pad out the short running time. And it might be too mood-heavy for some viewers. But it did manage to get under my skin, particularly as the narrative entered the third act and character's loyalties are tested. It’s an effective debut film for Josh Lobo and I can’t wait to see what he works on next.

I Trapped the Devil is the second movie I’m covering remotely for the Chattanooga Film Festival and will be hitting select theatres and VOD on April 26th.