“Faith makes people dangerous,” says Karen (Susan Burke) to her husband Matt (AJ Bowen) in writer/director Josh Lobo’s feature debut I Trapped The Devil. The couple has paid a surprise visit to Matt’s brother Steve (Scott Poythress) at Christmas – that time in the calendar when issues of faith and family converge, and are often tested. Under the red, green, blue and yellow glow of the Christmas decorations, they find that they are not welcome. Loner Steve is distracted, uncommunicative, aggressive. This big house, once a family home before a horrific accident, now seems to reflect the disturbed mind of its sole occupant. The phone keeps ringing, the electrics keep shorting, and an old detuned television shows only static and distorted images. There is a loaded gun hidden upstairs under a bed. There are crosses on the doors, and the windows are covered over in old newspapers. Up in the attic, and down in the basement, there are secrets haunting Steve, secrets that he both longs and fears to share. The lights are on, but there’s nobody home.
“Do you trust me?” Steve asks his brother. “Really trust me? I gotta show you something.” Here, once again, faith and family intersect, as Steve reveals to Matt that he has a man locked behind a door in the cellar, a man whom he unshakingly believes is the devil incarnate, and the ‘seed’ of ‘pure evil’ in the world. Matt is torn. “Something’s wrong with Steve,” he tells Karen, “I think he might be dangerous.” And yet Matt feels a strong loyalty to Steve, bonded with his brother not just by genetics, but by a shared trauma and guilt. He does not want to call the police, but to help Steve out of this situation. Meanwhile earnest, upset Steve, insistent that he is not crazy, just wants his only remaining family to believe him.
The ensuing claustrophobic scenario plays out like a mix of Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People (2015), Joseph Sims-Dennett’s Observance (2015) and Tilman Singer’s Luz (2018), as mental illness, grief and paranoia vie with something more insidiously manipulative, and faith opens a door to an undermining uncertainty. Here Steve, Matt and relative outsider Karen are working to reconcile the lingering scars of a past family tragedy with a broader struggle, all at once spiritual, psychological and philosophical, to resolve the problem of evil – and the form that eventually emerges, part psychodrama, part demonic horror, is, in all its ambiguity, a satanically slippery genre hybrid. Amid all this family dysfunction, the devil is truly in the detail.
I Trapped The Devil is essentially a chamber piece, and essentially a three-hander – yet it easily overcomes its obvious low budget with a sustained intensity achieved through Ben Lovett’s pervasive score (all growling guitars, synth glissandi and driving percussion), Bryce Holden’s broodily circling cinematography, and increasingly hallucinatory imagery that is all the more effective for being accomplished simply in camera. The narrative is firmly grounded in characters who always feel real, no matter how madly surreal the events become in their creepy, confined surroundings. In the end, as with the very best chillers, you will be left not knowing what to believe. For, as one character puts it, perfectly summarising the film’s uncanny, irrational trappings: “The only real certainty is you’ll never fully understand why.”
strap: Josh Lobo’s impressively intense, uncannily ambiguous feature debut I Trapped The Devil plays out a family’s dysfunctional damage as Satanic psychodrama.
© Anton Bitel