Review: In His Directorial Debut, Josh Lobo Delivers Tension And Claustrophobic Fear in I TRAPPED THE DEVIL

Estranged families often come together for the holidays. But what if one family member had a dark secret hidden in the basement?

In Josh Lobo’s film, I Trapped the Devil, married couple Matt and Karen decide to make a surprise visit to Matt’s estranged brother, Steve, for Christmas.  What begins as a less-than-friendly reception from Steve becomes something much more sinister. Steve believes he has the devil locked in his basement, and by keeping the evil locked away, the world is a somewhat better place. Matt and Karen are forced to decide for themselves if they believe Steve or if the man locked inside is just a human. 

I Trapped the Devil is Lobo’s first stab at writing, directing, and producing a feature film. Before this his only credit is in the art department for Dave Made a Maze (which is also a fantastic film). With this film Lobo has created a tension-filled slow burn that focuses on building suspense on top of paranoia. Steve is clearly an unstable man. When he reveals his prisoner to Matt, Matt is understandably shaken and concerned for his brother’s mental state. From that moment there is a constant back and forth between whether Steve has truly caught the devil or if he has lost his mind and imprisoned an innocent man.

At times the film can feel a bit too slow. It focuses on determining whether or not Steve has lost his mind, and it relies on that back and forth to build suspense and tension. This method will likely work for many viewers, but some may be put off by the lack of action. Lobo also seems to have made a conscious decision to leave certain aspects out of the plot related to how the man (or devil) could have been caught. Some may wish they knew more, but I think it works well because the audience ends up knowing as much information as Matt and Karen when they arrive.

There is a quiet intensity about the film that enhances the paranoia while also generating a distinct sense of claustrophobia. This claustrophobic feeling is primarily created through lighting and cinematography. The three characters are alone in a dark house. Most of the lighting comes from small lamps and Christmas lights. The overall darkness gives the feeling that the walls are coming in on the family. The lighting in the basement is even more unnerving. It is a windowless room only lit by a single red bulb. The red glow on the door to the prison and the faces of Steve, Matt, and Karen not only give the space an ominous look, but it gives the impression that the basement itself is Hell. Each scene is purposefully framed in a way to draw the audience’s eye to a specific area, making the film as stunning as it is unnerving.

With the film being entirely in one setting and having such a small cast, the performances in I Trapped the Devil are a vital part of what makes it successful. Scott Poythress (Homeland, The Resident) delivers a compelling performance as Steve. He perfectly straddles the line in a way that makes it unclear whether he is delusional or not. AJ Bowen (You’re Next, The Signal) plays Steve’s brother, Matt. Bowen’s portrayal of Matt is especially compelling because he doesn’t believe his brother has trapped the devil, yet he also wants to keep his brother from getting into trouble. The dynamic between Poythress and Bowen adds a sentimental aspect to the film. 

I Trapped the Devil is a claustrophobic slow-burn that expertly generates paranoia. The film delivers compelling performances that are perfectly coupled with fantastic sets and lighting. There are times where the plot progresses a bit too slowly, but not enough to rid the film of its tension. Despite the occasional pacing issues, this film is still a triumph as Lobo’s first feature film.

I Trapped the Devil is now available to stream on Amazon and Vudu.