Written by: Scott Derrickson & Paul Harris Boardman (screenplay), Ralph Sarchie & Lisa Collier Cool (book)
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, and Joel McHale
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You haven't seen true evil..."
Deliver Us From Evil is Scott Derrickson’s latest dance with the devil, as the two have become rather familiar partners over the past decade, first with The Exorcism of Emily Rose and later with Sinister, a pair of films that established the director as a steady genre hand. His latest effort feels something like a victory lap, not only because he’s about to set sail for the Marvel and Doctor Strange, but also because Deliver Us From Evil isn’t terribly inventive and finds Derrickson still preoccupied with weaving skin-crawling episodes and jarring jolts through a faux-verite fabric. Of course, this doesn’t preclude the film from being a well-crafted retread, especially since it deviates from the possession genre’s progenitor just enough—where so many filmmakers have been chasing the Satanic white whale that is The Exorcist for 40 years, Derrickson has finally made a film for fans of The Exorcist III.
In this case, the film derives its true life authenticity from the case files of New York cop Ralph Sarchie, here portrayed by Eric Bana. After a cryptic prologue set in Iraq (thus immediately shading it with The Exorcist), the film picks up with Sarchie’s hellish itinerary, which involves digging dead babies out of dumpsters and responding to domestic disturbance calls. An especially bizarre alert brings him and his partner (Joel McHale) to the Bronx City Zoo, where a woman tossed her child into a lion pit and has holed up inside of the place. The duo manages to find the psychotic woman and place her in custody, but her deranged babbling is only a precursor to further weirdness: a mysterious man is also prowling the premises, and his appearance coincides with a rise in occult-themed disturbances in the city.
Even more so than Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil feels like a film with a loose, wide-opened premise that serves as the background for a collection of shocks. Both films lack narrative verve and a sense of escalation, with Derrickson instead preferring to marshal a parade of the usual scare tactics, from the uber-grisly (like a cat crucifixion) to the more suggestive (flitting, ambient noises and possessed children’s toys—whoever makes the toy owl featured in this one is probably pissed). These sequences work because Derrickson is a master at mounting dread and pay-offs in bursts—it’s just that something about the film is rather relaxed in its procession. Events occur mostly at random, thinly strung together by obligatory expository bits (the film features multiple tragic backstories for main characters to explain how they’ve come to be in the demon hunting business).
And yet, like Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil works because Derrickson infuses the proceedings with an oppressively dire vibe. From the opening sequence, one feels as if they’re set to endure the rigors of hell, and the film rarely relents (even with McHale providing some reliable comic relief). The film is guided by the grunge-noir aesthetic of Seven, where sunlight is at a premium and rain constantly drowns out the frame in bleakness (it literally wears this influence on its skin at one point, as McHale’s character is tatted up with the seven sins). Characters often take refuge in dilapidated, dingy locales and poke around sinister, grimy crevices that hide bloated corpses. With the film consistently couched in Satan’s bowels, it places viewers on edge in perpetuity, and Derrickson obliges with a grab-bag of patented horror techniques, including a bit of found-footage stuff here and there thanks to security footage and the likes. If this is a victory lap, it feels as though he’s playing his Greatest Hits on his way out.
I don’t mean to imply that Derrickson is disinterested because the film is wound too tightly to believe that—it’s just that it almost feels like old hat at this point, both for him and for audiences, who have almost become conditioned for each jolt and trick. Crafting a film like this must be challenging as hell by now, and Derrickson’s solution is to just charge right into it. Deliver Us From Evil is especially a film that creeps up on audiences over and over again until it finally culminates in a bombastic exorcism; I don’t know that it makes for a particularly riveting story, but it feels like a hell of a ride (in the Bruckheimer tradition, I suppose).
The film shows an inconsistent interest in its characters; Bana’s Sarchie often feels like an avatar of human misery, there only to feel the brunt of this pure evil and relay its effects through his high-strung but weathered intensity. With the actual Sarchie involved, the film’s portrayal is ultimately flattering but doesn’t shy away from his failings as a father and husband, though one wishes that his wife and daughter (Olivia Munn & Lulu Wilson) were more than just objects to be placed into peril (naturally, the demon in question begins to take an interest in these two once Sarchie is hot on its trail).
Most unexpected is the emergence of Edgar Ramirez as Mendoza, a Jesuit priest who partners up with Sarchie and becomes the film’s noble, dignified center; a former drug-addict who turned to the cloth out of desperation, he still has bouts with temptation, particularly as it pertains to booze and women. Humanity is sometimes in short supply in these types of movies, but just enough of it seeps through with Ramirez’s charismatic turn. His bond with Sarchie is the closest thing the film has to a human backbone and allows the film to morph from standard-issue police procedural to a buddy-cop occult flick, albeit with few laughs and tons of creepy demonic claptrap (I think Jim Morrison would be amused to discover that Satan is apparently a big fan of The Doors, whose music provides an unexpected soundtrack because the demon is opening hell-doors, you see).
It can hardly be said that the film plunges any psychological depths with these characters—at best, it’s the stock exorcist tale where a doubtful skeptic becomes a crucifix-wielding warrior for Christ, and, at worst, Sarchie and Mendoza are simply tour guides into the occult underbelly. But that’s okay—I enjoy this duo, and, like The Conjuring before it, this is a film that lays the groundwork for future case files to be dusted off and molded into a horror movie.
With names like Sarchie and Mendoza, the two feel like a readymade brand (in fact, is it too late to retitle this Sarchie and Mendoza Deliver Us From Evil?) fit to go toe-to-toe with Ed and Lorraine Warren in the battle for our demonically possessed hearts. Their most fatal flaw just might be timing—with so many possession movies under our belts, it’s easy to wonder if we have room for any more. It’s a fair question, but I’m the sort of guy who will definitely take that extra cookie so long as it tastes good. Deliver Us From Evil is like that cookie—no, I don’t need it, but I’m definitely going to eat it. Probably won’t beg for seconds, though, since Derrickson's going to be a little busy with the Sorcerer Supreme. Buy it!
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