DELIVER US FROM EVIL Review: Forgive Them Their Trespasses
While I cut my horror teeth in the 1970s on Hammer films and public domain cheesefests on TV, my introduction to serious horror was with William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist (1973). I saw it on VHS, and it scared me so that for years I avoided watching it again, even when it was a popular rental for “movie parties” that were all the rage with teens in 1980s suburban Delaware.
I’ve seen it since (having finally been “forced” to watch it for a review assignment in 2000) and at some point I’ll see it again, but I’m always reminded of it when new horror films come along that deal with possession and exorcisms. Scott Derrickson‘s Deliver Us From Evil is one of those new horror films.
Eric Bana plays Ralph Sarchie, a Bronx-based NYPD police sergeant with a wife (Olivia Munn) and young daughter. While on patrol, instinct tells Ralph that he and his partner, Butler (Joel McHale), should take what appears to be a routine domestic violence call (something usually beneath them). His instincts prove right, but … the case winds up being the first in a series of bizarre crimes that brings Ralph (and his family) face to face with the devil.
But evil isn’t the only thing Ralph must confront. He must also confront his own past and his own lapsed faith, but he can only do so with the help of Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), a unique priest who specializes in demonic possessions and exorcisms.
I liked Deliver Us From Evil, but is it ever a frustrating film. Its strong positives are only weakened by negatives that cannot be ignored, with an imbalance borne mostly of indecision throughout all aspects of the film.
After a horror-specific, Iraq-based prologue (that comes back into play later in the film), director Derrickson sets out to make a gritty, 1970s-style crime thriller with hints of the supernatural. He’s very good at setting this mood, as evidenced by the present-day opening scene involving an infant found in an alleyway; it’s intense and impactful and sets the stage for what could be a gripping thriller. This continues with the domestic abuse case, a case about a woman throwing her child to the lions in the Bronx Zoo, and a case about a family that thinks its house is haunted, complete with mysterious sounds coming from the basement.
It very much has a Se7en-like feel to it (with help from Scott Kevan‘s cinematography), but rather than continue to ratchet the intensity, Derrickson eventually rests on horror film clichés to keep the story going, including an inordinate number of jump-scares. When he returns to moments of grittiness, they no longer seem to work (or he doesn’t stage them well, like a chase scene early on and a fight between two characters in a stairwell later).
As much as Kevan’s cinematography sets a bleak city mood, it also has its moments of great disparity. The film offers a notable number of scenes that occur in settings so dark as to render the scenes – be they creepy establishing scenes or faster-paced action scenes – almost indiscernible.
Conversely, the quieter scenes, those scenes that involve discussions between Sarchie and Mendoza, are wonderfully lit by Kevan and particularly well-shot by Derrickson, who hasn’t met a close-up he doesn’t like (and that’s a compliment.) Kevan and Derrickson also combine for a sensational closing set-piece featuring Sarchie, Mendoza, and Santino (Sean Harris), the ultimate target of their investigation and the living epicenter of demonic possession.
The screenplay, co-written by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman (based on the this-actually-happened book, Beware the Night, by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool), is the weakest part of the film. When it moves away from that core gritty procedural tale, it becomes a routine horror story about demonic possession and the need for exorcism, which opens the door for more routine discussions about God and free will and faith-vs.-fact and so on.
Involving Sarchie’s home life and family, during good times and perilous, feels like straight filler mixed with an opportunity to put his family in peril and give him higher personal stakes. His wife and daughter are so two-dimensional that they feel more like props or undeveloped ideas than characters. Even when Sarchie opens up to his wife about some of the horrors he has witnessed – a solid scene that gives the cop a PTSD dimension to his character and sets up an excellent backstory – she might just as well have been a police psychologist; Munn is there for Bana to act against, nothing more. (All of that said, taking the horror to Sarchie’s house allows for some terrifically scary sounds, and the rolling owl toy in Sarchie’s daughter’s room are sufficiently creepy – although again, there is also a creepy jack-in-the-box, another horror cliché that has been done death.)
Even the cast is a mixed bag. Harris skulks about as the possessed veteran and well as one can, and cop-wife Munn does as much as she can with what little she has to work with.
McHale, as Bana’s adrenaline-junkie partner, is dreadfully miscast. It’s great that McHale hit the weights to beef-up for the part, and occasional comic relief is always welcome in a horror film to break tension and reset the audience, but McHale was clearly recruited for – and worse, specifically written for – snarky one-liners that are poorly timed and, overall, forced into scenes.
If you can look past the sketchy New York accent, Bana is fine in most scenes, but better in scenes that require more acting than simply squinting in the dark when his flashlight dies. His scenes with Ramírez are more than just well-lit, and his emotional purge to Munn is quite good. He doesn’t propel the film to any great heights, but he carries most of the weight which is what he is supposed to do.
Ramírez, on the other hand, is the film’s MVP. His portrayal of the smoking, drinking, scruffy-handsome man of God is attention-getting in the best ways: subtle, sincere, measured. His is a character that demands a prequel (and the way his backstory is presented, it wouldn’t surprise me if intent is already there), but only if he’s playing the part.
I will say it again. I liked Deliver Us From Evil, but is it ever a frustrating film. In the wake of last year’s spectacular The Conjuring and this year’s excellent Oculus, horror filmmakers need to bring their A-Game to the table. Scott Derrickson, despite his horror pedigree (2012’s Sinister; 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose), is no exception. Yes, he brings his A-Game, but he brings some minor-league bad habits, too.