New kid on the butcher’s block Josh Lobo makes his feature debut as a wearer of many hats: writer, editor, and director of the Twilight Zone adjacent mindf&@k I Trapped The Devil. I specifically make the Twilight Zone comparison versus Black Mirror because as faithful New Year’s marathon watchers of Rod Serling’s classic sci-fi anthology will remark, I Trapped The Devil is a meatier, expanded rendition of “The Howling Man.” Whether intended or not, Lobo exploits unknown and fantastical evil forces under the colorful twinkle of Christmas horror lighting. In a matter of words: completely this critic’s jam.
Steve (Scott Poythress) believes he’s trapped the Devil in his basement. Brother Matt (AJ Bowen) and wife Karen (Susan Burke) are not aware of such circumstance when they arrive at Steve’s home for a Christmas visit. Decorations glisten a frosty sparkle, but Steve’s anxious ranting and Matt’s growing concern over his brother’s mental health override holiday cheer. Whether it’s the devil or a human hostage, something is in Steve’s basement. Whether or not Matt opens the door to find out who’s speaking from the other side is a whole different story.
IFC Midnight is releasing I Trapped The Devil in limited theaters on April 26th, so keep your eyes peeled for availability. Until then, dig into these three reasons why you should check out Mr. Lobo’s sugar-plum-paranoid debut.
1. There Is No Hand-Holding Of The Audience
What Lobo asks of his audience is to plant themselves within an unexplainable scenario, and to do so with four-walled immersion. There will be some of you who ask aloud, “But HOW did Steve trap Lucifer?” Typically the devil (hah) is in the details, but here it’s in a lack of spoon-feeding that’s unnecessary given Lobo’s intent. We are Matt and Karen, thrust into either a criminal kidnapping that could land them all in jail, or – even worse – if Steve is telling no fibs, Satan sits contained in a basement closet with only some padlocks and a wooden cross keeping Hell’s ruler at bay. Does it all seem too farfetched and dizzying to comprehend? Of course! That’s what amplifies the madness of I Trapped The Devil.
Everyone craves personalized brands of horror, and those who benefit from swirling into a satanic video vortex of tree ornaments and fits of inexplicable mania without structured blueprints will drink up Lobo’s toxic seasonal cocktail. By knowing so little, we’re effectively bum rushed by statements more perplexing than enlightening. As Steve permits Matt entrance into a lunatic’s attic covered by missing child posters, tacks, and strings connecting a web of “patterns,” we see every conspiracy theory without context. It all sounds so crazy, but ambiguity doesn’t allow for an easily challengeable retort. Lobo doesn’t show us an alternative, which leaves perception and understanding to question with an open-ended concept. In my eyes, only ever to the film’s benefit.
2. A Fantastic Addition To The Christmas Horror Subgenre
The words “feature debut” are synonymous with visions of lesser-quality in some viewers’ minds, but let me assure you, I Trapped The Devil is markedly polished by filmmaking merits. From Lobo’s jack-of-all-trades creativity to Bryce Holden’s looming cinematography to Ben Lovett’s homely but upsetting score, this is a film that engages audiences on deeper levels than visual representation. I’m an absolute sucker for Christmas horror, and Lobo’s production design wastes not the festive hallmarks of strung-up multicolored mini-lights and heavy, saturating red filters. Steve’s home is a quaint slice of Americana that’d represent most any rural suburbia household, but Lobo trades peace on Earth for Hell on Earth with such unassuming ease thanks in large part to the overall team’s steady hands. Horror without jump scares, banging at your doorstep with a heavy thud.
While it’s true that conversational interrogations primarily conjure intensity between Matt, Karen, Steve, and whenever “The Devil” (voiced by Chris Sullivan) gets to attempt a few pleas for release, I Trapped The Devil sparingly grants spurts of genre weirdness. Jocelin Donahue plays a woman who’s trapped behind VHS tracking fuzz on television screens, blood gushes from a stuffed animal, Steve wavers in and out of psychosis as depicted by an alternate blackened world – I Trapped The Devil might be a character piece, but Lobo feeds the fires of intrigue by maximizing genre additives. Holden’s frame slowly pans in on Steve’s locked basement door or whatever new oddness appears, Lovett’s score pricking at our nerves like plucked instrument strings.
3. Scott Poythress Is A New Face Of Horror As Steve
AJ Bowen and Jocelin Donahue might be more recognizable indie horror names, and Chris Sullivan’s become a household commodity thanks to This Is Us (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 as well), but I Trapped The Devil is Scott Poythress’ showcase. A reclusive nutjob who’s blocked his windows with newspaper, estranged from family, babbling on about how he’s locked Satan away for good. Poythress plays Steve with such a straight face, never fully committing to the loony bin so he can tease viewers with the possibility of his tall tales being proven right. Steve’s eyes apprehensively dart as Matt attempts to understand what’s wrong with his brother, all the while Poythress is succumbing to his character’s delusion with a transformative performance that encourages speculation.
There’s more to the action than Steve’s raves about how he’s saving humanity from even 1% of worldwide atrocities instigated by El Diablo. Poythress’ on-edge routine keeps a healthy uneasiness pulsating through scenes involving a loaded handgun, distorted visions, otherworldly standoffs and more. As a character piece, I Trapped The Devil allows Poythress to bathe in self-righteousness and martyrdom on a level that – in his mind – cannot be understood by non-believers. In reality, he sounds like a street corner doomsday prophet – but Poythress owns Steve’s teetering-on-the-brink alarmist. Bowen and Burke are pawns used to provoke Poythress’ absurdist breakdown, the same as Sullivan’s muttered lines from behind his sealed gate. If you’re going to get “trapped” watching a Christmas horror ode to family dysfunction with a devilish twist, it helps to have a performance as accomplished as Poythress’ deliriously disturbed fraying of sanity. Ho-ho-horrors that’ll stuff the stockings of pressure-cooker genre fans in your life!