I Trapped the Devil has one of the most enticing horror plots of recent years. Steve (Scott Poythress) somehow caught the devil himself and has him locked behind a door in the basement of his home. At least, that's what he claims. Steve's estranged brother Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke), who have come to visit, aren't so sure. They suspect he may be in the midst of a mental health crisis.
That's the set-up. From there, I Trapped the Devil follows what happens as the situation grows creepier and creepier. Matt and Karen venture into the basement and talk to the man behind the door. He pleads for help, but something feels off. His voice sounds weird. He's strangely calm for someone being held against his will. They have to figure out whether Steve is holding an innocent person hostage or whether his paranoia is simply spreading to them.
To his great credit, writer/director Josh Lobo keeps us as uncertain as his characters are. The film creates an atmosphere of dread that continually increases. Whenever the story ventures into that basement, we can feel the unease because, like Matt and Karen, we genuinely don't know what the situation is. Further, the story asks us to ponder which scenario is worse. If a hostage is behind that door, Steve has gone dangerously off the rails. If, on the other hand, it really is the devil, then they have all ventured into uncharted territory, with uncertain – but undeniably terrifying – implications.
One of the neat hooks in I Trapped the Devil is a sly sense of humor running underneath the concept. Steve, Matt, and Karen have darkly humorous discussions about what to do if, in fact, that's actually Satan in there. How do you dispose of an entity like that? What could they possibly do that would keep him from getting the upper hand once the door was opened? These questions add a layer of queasy fun.
A key trait of paranoia is the “fixed belief” – an irrational thought that is believed so thoroughly by the person that no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince them that they're wrong. What's even more troublesome is that, under the right circumstances, the fixed belief can be transferred to others. It's potentially contagious. I Trapped the Devil wrings some tension from this, as well. If Steve is delusional, then Matt and Karen are infected by his illness.
There's a lot happening under the surface, and that constant mental engagement with the plot is gratifying for viewers who like intelligent, chill-inducing horror. The performances from all three leads are terrific, with Scott Poythress in particular doing compelling work. We're fascinated by Steve because of the air of mystery the actor brings to him.
In a couple moments, the hallucinatory nature of the story is just a bit confusing. So is the geography of the house. That might sound trivial, but in a story of this sort, knowing where everyone is in relation to everyone else at all times is vital. A legitimately surprising resolution helps to mitigate that, though. When the big reveal comes, it achieves power by being unexpectedly subtle. Lobo clearly understands that low-key is sometimes more impactful than excessively shocking.
I Trapped the Devil is a cool, clever indie horror movie that unnerves you with ideas – a feat only gifted filmmakers can pull off. Josh Lobo begins his directorial career with a bang.
out of four
I Trapped the Devil is unrated, but contains language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 22 minutes.