Charles Beaumont’s short story ‘The Howling Man’, memorably adapted as a Twilight Zone episode, concerns a traveller who stays overnight at a remote monastery and finds that the monks are keeping a wretched fellow imprisoned in a deep dungeon. The captive howls (of course) and pleads for release and mercy, but the brothers tell the protagonist that they are charged with guarding the Devil, and the last time he got out the First World War started. The ending isn’t exactly a twist – though it’s a splendid shocker – since the story is set in 1939. Given that Rod Serling was well-known for treating the entirety of published weird fiction as open source, it’s appropriate that so many filmmakers have riffed off the Twilight Zone in crafting their own works – the formula remains appealing, with the enclosed settings, grabby narrative hooks, arch overall feel of distortion and alienation, opportunities for pithy editorialising and barbed endings. Writer-director Josh Lobo is plainly thinking of ‘The Howling Man’ in I Trapped the Devil, but the edgy, modern mood – this isn’t about a big church conspiracy, but a fractured family – is more in line with They Look Like People, Sator, Pod or many another recent movie that suggests the silver foil hat brigade may have a point but that doesn’t make them less impossible to live around.
Matt (AJ Bowen) and his wife Karen (Susan Burke) visit Matt’s reclusive brother Steve (Scott Poythress), who has overdecorated the family house for Christmas and has a serial killer-cum-conspiracy theorist’s loft full of ominous press cuttings and red threads that indicate a global picture of spreading Evil. And, in the basement, behind a triple lock, Steve has someone captive – who claims to be an abducted innocent who just wants to get home to his family. The Twilight Zone episode didn’t have time to dither, but even this short feature can’t cut to the door being opened … so there are a muddle of complications, with Matt torn between doing the right thing by the unknown captive and sending his obviously unwell brother to prison, while the edgy, sensitive Karen starts to wonder whether there might not be something in his ravings.
The last act, in which violence erupts and outsiders venture into the claustrophobic home, is busy and pays off with a nice, unexpected chill – referencing an image of the Devil featured significantly in a run of cult films but very unlike the horned one of Baumont’s vision. Lobo is so interested in the undercurrents between the central trio that he rather underplays the voice from beyond the door (Chris Sullivan, mostly) which changes (perhaps only in the ears of those who are listening) and rattles through varying arguments about why this Devil should be let free but doesn’t quite emerge as the fearsome presence the story really needs. Bowen, a genre veteran, again plays the appalled, slightly weak normal guy confronted by insanity – his House of the Devil co-star Jocelin Donahue has a significant bit – while Poythress and Burke get to go deeper into twitchy madness.
Here’s a trailer.