'I Trapped the Devil': Film Review

I Trapped the Devil Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of IFC
You'll feel trapped as well.

A seemingly deranged man claims to have Satan locked up in his basement in Josh Lobo's low-budget horror film.

The premise of Josh Lobo's debut feature would make for a very intriguing short film. Actually, it already has, in the form of "The Howling Man," an episode of the original Twilight Zone series based on a classic short story by Charles Beaumont, to which this film owes an obvious debt. Unfortunately, for all the debuting filmmaker's talent for creepy atmospherics, I Trapped the Devil feels draggy and attenuated even with its brief 82-minute running time including credits. Despite some good performances, the film goes nowhere, and very, very slowly.

Set during the Christmas holiday, with the twinkly decorations providing an ironic visual counterpoint to the ominous goings-on, the film depicts the ill-fated family reunion between estranged brothers Matt (A.J. Bowen) and Steve (Scott Poythress). Matt shows up unannounced at his sibling's large Victorian house in the suburbs, accompanied by his wife, Karen (Susan Burke), who had suggested the impromptu visit.

Steve, radiating inner turmoil and brandishing a knife, isn't exactly welcoming to the pair, informing them that they have to go. It turns out he has good reason for not wanting them to be there, as the couple discover that Steve has a man trapped in a room in the basement. A male voice from behind the locked door plaintively begs to be let out. It's a fraught enough situation, made all the worse by Steve's insistence that the prisoner is not human but rather Satan himself.

It's at this point that very little of interest happens for much of the rest of the film's running time. The two brothers engage in tense conversation about their relationship. Karen wanders throughout the house and discovers a loaded gun. And although initially subscribing to Matt's theory that his brother has gone mad and trapped an innocent person in the basement, she begins to believe that more nefarious forces may be afoot. Adding to the disquieting atmosphere is the incessant ringing of Steve's phone and the visual static emanating from the television set that includes shadowy images of a woman.

Bryce Holden's crimson-drenched cinematography and Ben Lovett's shriek-inducing musical score provide suitable technical embellishment, but the writer-director never manages to infuse the proceedings with enough suspense to maintain interest. It doesn't help that the dialogue is often cheesy and the provocative elements, such as the mysterious phone calls, are underdeveloped. By the time a pair of cops arrive for the inevitable violent conclusion, we've long since lost patience, and the ending, although nicely done in subtle fashion, proves underwhelming as well.

The performers do what they can to bring life to the tedious material, with Poythress particularly effective as the twitchy Steve. The character could easily have come across as a mere plot device, but the actor manages to invest him with a poignant vulnerability that almost, but not quite, makes us care about his plight.

Production: Yellow Veil Pictures
Distributor: IFC Midnight
Cast: A.J. Bowen, Susan Burke, Scott Poythress, Rowan Russell, Chris Sullivan, Jocelin Donahue
Director-screenwriter: Josh Bowen
Producers: Josh Lobo, Spence Nicholson, Scott Weinberg
Executive producers: Josh Lobo, Spence Nicholson, Scott Weinberg
Director of photography: Bryce Holden
Production designer: Karleigh Engelbrecht
Editors: Josh Bowen, Spence Nicholson
Composer: Ben Lovett
Costume designers: Dawn Sharp, Shannon Gauer

82 minutes