Despite the Christmas tree and colored lights that deck the halls of I Trapped The Devil, this is anything but an uplifting Christmas tale. There are no presents under this tree, only paranoia and seeming delusions about evil that wash away any wishes of good fortune that are whispered during the holiday season. Josh Lobo’s directorial debut is a haunting tale that makes the potentially hellish ordeal of celebrating Christmas even more terrifying.
I Trapped The Devil follows a couple, Matt (Josh Bowen) and Karen (Susan Burke), as they decide to visit Steve (Scott Poythress), Matt’s brother, for Christmas. Steve lives alone in a large house and has suffered some kind of tragedy that led to him losing his wife and child (though this is never fully explained). However, Steve is not excited to see them; in fact he is furious. He paces and wrings his hands while the couple declare they are staying to keep him company for the holidays, no matter how much he protests. But, they come to regret this choice as they discover Steve’s secret: he has someone locked in the basement. Behind a padlocked door, adorned with a giant crucifix, is what Steve says is the devil. We never get to see this man, but we hear his bewitching voice as he tries to get someone to release him from this prison. But is he really the devil? This is what Matt and Karen grapple with as they begin to question Steve’s sanity. Has grief driven him to madness or has he really trapped the essence of evil?
There is no escaping these questions because all three characters are pushed together in the cramped space of the house, which becomes a character of its own. It creaks and groans with each step, betraying the location of any character. It contains secrets within its depths, from a demon in the basement to a complicated web of conspiracy theories, constructed by Steve, in its attic. As paranoia grows, so does the claustrophobia, and the house seems to shrink, pushing everyone together into an explosive, almost trippy, climax that is born of fear and confusion.
Poythress, Bowen, and Burke are a perfect threesome, working and building off of each other to make I Trapped The Devil’s final moments all the more effective. Poythress is the paranoid brother, Bowen is the protective yet skeptical brother, and Burke is the angry, yet easily influenced wife who is trying to play mediator between siblings. All three of them bring their own anxieties to the house, which only contribute to the growing tension about what to do with the man in the basement. Leading these performances, though, is Poythress, whose portrayal of Steve is haunting yet extremely sad; he plays the panicked desperation of a man searching for an explanation for tragedy so well, it feels like a suckerpunch.
Horror, especially indie horror, is experiencing an influx of slow burn films that lavish in a snail-like pace to build a dread-filled atmosphere. However, sometimes this pacing can feel unnecessary and mind-numbing, which is the case in a few scenes in I Trapped The Devil. This is not to say that film isn’t effective in creating dread, but certain moments of the film feel like they’re just used to pad out a film that already has such a short runtime. The narrative seems to walk in circles before getting to the real action and terror that lies in the basement. Relying more on overlong shots of hugs or drunken dancing than providing any more detailed narrative explanation, this is a film that tries a little too hard to focus on its characters’ present than on their pasts.
While the film’s pace can be painfully slow, I Trapped The Devil still made me sweat profusely, especially once we hear that bewitching voice come from behind the padlocked door. It finds a way to worm into your brain and doubt whether what Steve is experiencing is real, or merely a delusion spurred by intense grief. Fortunately, this is a film that doesn’t rely on declining mental health for its conclusion and delivers something much more satisfying. I Trapped The Devil is another effective indie horror from IFC Midnight that showcases the emerging talent within the genre, while also giving us a heavy dose of Christmas-themed dread.