There has been an absolute dearth of possession-themed horror movies lately. I don’t know what it is, but the public imagination has been captured by the possibility of a demonic entity forcing its way into the human realm. There’s the Paranormal Activity series, The Conjuring, Insidious, The Possession; the list goes on and on. Don’t get me wrong, while I personally don’t find exorcism and its trappings to be the scariest of themes, I can certainly appreciate a good, old-fashioned haunting, and it definitely lends itself to some truly innovative horror possibilities. Therefore, when I saw the previews for Deliver Us From Evil, I was hoping for a movie that would be a cut above the rest, and would carve out a unique place for itself in the vast lexicon of supernatural titles. However, for the most part, it proved itself to be little more than a cash-in on a popular subject.
Detective Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his wise-cracking, Red Sox-loving partner Butler (Joel McHale) struggle to investigate a series of violent crimes surrounded by unusual circumstances. A mother pitches her toddler into a lion’s cage, a man commits suicide and is found with gruesome injuries, and a domestic abuse suspect escapes police to stalk the night. As the pair scour the depths of the Bronx, they discover that all the strange happenings revolve around a trio of Iraqi war veterans who brought something more sinister than just garden-variety PTSD back home with them. Sarchie also comes to realize that he may possess a gift for fighting evil, cultivated by a Jesuit priest who helps him reconcile himself to God for his past sins.
Director and screen-writer Scott Derrickson seems to be somewhat confused about what he hopes to accomplish with this movie. It’s difficult to tell whether it is supposed to be a police procedural or a horror film, and ends up being an ineffective, clichéd mishmash of old standards for each genre, strangely peppered with the occasional war scene. This is a problem he’s run into before—while 2012’s Sinister was a decent blend of a psychological thriller and a supernatural horror film with some truly unsettling death scenes, 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose suffered greatly from its emphasis on courtroom drama and extraneous characters rather than on Emily herself. This movie is, at its core, just a reboot of Emily Rose featuring a hardboiled police officer rather than a sassy lawyer to drive the storyline.
While the scenes that actually feature the possessed characters are decent and adequately shocking, the movie unfortunately overuses little foreshadowing devices to announce a demonic presence that render it effectively ridiculous. The lights flicker, the radio emits strange feedback, and even worse, random references to The Doors abound, indicating that a pathway has been opened to allow the demon into this world. It is reminiscent of the on-the-nose warnings of the Final Destination series, but somehow made even more ludicrous by its utter lack of self-awareness. However, it’s not all bad on the old Satanic beat. The primary antagonist and final boss, so to speak, is well-cast and genuinely scary, a worthy adversary for the ancient magic of the church. The other victims of demonic possession, especially the mother who makes her young son the main character of their own personal Book of Daniel, are woven together nicely by the intricacies of the plot line, and it actually is enjoyable to discover the source of the inexplicable deaths plaguing the Bronx along with Ralph.
The writing is fairly atrocious, and Eric Bana appears embarrassed throughout by the hokey lines he’s forced to spit out. He knows he’s not the first cop to struggle with family life and to have become jaded and resentful of his childhood faith, only to be brought back to the light by a cool-cat priest with a checkered past. Speaking of that, however, one of the few redeeming features of this mess is the performance of Edgar Ramirez as the foxy Jesuit priest Mendoza. While the character has no more genuine depth than any of the others, Ramirez himself is absolutely smoldering—just stare at him and let his voice wash over you. Don’t worry about what he’s saying, you’ve heard it before, as he’s basically a younger, sexier version of Tom Wilkinson’s character Father Moore from Emily Rose.
Unfortunately, the underlying and important message the movie tries to communicate—that war sends soldiers home effectively cursed by what they have experienced, and that all those who work with the downtrodden are inevitably dragged into the mire—is lost in the tired possession conventions Derrickson tosses around the screen and obscured by the film’s identity crisis. While he seems to have a good intuition for plot development, his movies would be improved if he decided to extricate himself from the screenwriting process. His best film to date, Sinister, features main characters who know well enough to get out of their own way and allow the horror to develop without muddying the waters, and contains very little dialogue. This film would have been greatly enhanced if it had focused on either the cop story, or the possession story. With his commercial success, it seems that Derrickson won’t be going anywhere soon, so it remains to be seen if he can refine his craft into a truly integrated and complete film.