New York cop thriller meets exorcism romp in this latest effort from director Scott Derrickson, based on the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant.
The film opens in found footage style from the shoulder-cam perspective of a group of U.S. troops fighting in Iraq in 2010. The soldiers enter a cave and discover a strange Latin inscription on the wall, before the visual cuts off and we are left with the sound of the men screaming.
Fast forward three years and New York police officer Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana, is on patrol with his partner Butler, played by Joel McHale. The pair receive a call regarding a domestic abuse case involving Jimmy Tratner, one of the three soldiers seen at the beginning of the film. When they arrive and Jimmy flees, Sarchie and Butler chase him down and arrest him.
The pair are then tasked to the local zoo, where a woman has thrown her two-year-old son into the lions’ pit. Sarchie finds the woman trying to dig into the ground with her bare fingers, repeatedly singing the words to a song by The Doors. They spot a man in a hood in the lion enclosure and Sarchie follows him deeper into the pit. To his surprise, a pair of lions appear, but Sarchie manages to escape unscathed.
Sarchie and Butler then make a call at a house where a family is complaining their home is possessed. When Sarchie explores the basement, he finds a decomposing body wrapped in tarpaulin, which is later discovered to be that of Lieutenant Griggs, another of the soldiers introduced in the film’s prologue.
These three incidents lead the detectives on an investigation deep into the world of Satanic rituals and demonic possession, aided by a Jesuit priest named Mendoza, played by Édgar Ramírez. As the case continues, Sarchie realises he must battle his own demons and confess to God, before he can defeat the evil force wreaking havoc across New York.
At its core, Deliver Us From Evil appears to be an attempt to take the goose-bump inducing scares from Derrickson’s previous films, such as 2005’s The Exorcism Of Emily Rose or 2012’s unsettling Sinister, and fuse it with a troubled-cop police thriller. The problem with this fusion, however, is that two rather distinct and separate films emerge, not always forming a cohesive whole.
For the most part, the exorcism and horror segments of the film work well, building tension relatively successfully and supporting the scares with creepy imagery and the kind of unsettling aesthetic one might expect from any possession/exorcism movie of this kind. While it fails to deliver on Derrickson’s deservedly more successful, aforementioned works, this aspect of the film might be considered a success, in that there is apt material to hold the average horror audience’s attention, at least, for the duration. Makeup effects work well and the story slowly but surely brings psychological and supernatural scares into play, almost as if seeking to convince the viewer that the film does indeed sit comfortably within the horror genre.
Whether or not this attempt is effective is debatable; but what comes across most in Deliver Us From Evil is something of a dissonance as the two aspects of the film jostle for prominence. Sarchie’s story is that of a troubled cop coming to terms with his revenge killing of a known rapist and child murderer, while juggling family problems and the stress of the job. His partner Butler is a combat expert with a penchant for cheesy one liners that ultimately jar and do little for the script or the characters, even if they are supposed to be taken with a pinch of salt. What is clear is a desire to call upon the comic talents of Joe McHale to deliver another dimension to the Butler character, but this unfortunately falls flat and adds to the many knots that plague the film for its duration.
One of the least convincing performances, however, comes courtesy of Édgar Ramírez. In fairness, Ramírez has his work cut out for him with a script that exploits cliché after cliché in its depiction of a drug addict turned Jesuit priest who alone understands the true meaning of evil. His attempts to make Sarchie atone for his sins and their subsequent partnership at the close of the film make Deliver Us From Evil the Biblical allegory that the title might suggest. It is clear that the narrative assumes the actual existence of the Judeo-Christian God and its battle against Satan. This in itself is not a bad thing, of course. If horror can deal with zombies, ghosts, vampires and indefatigable slasher anti-heroes, then why not also religion?
The Exorcist (1973), one could argue, also works on the premise that God and Satan are actual, omniscient forces that have a tangible effect on our world, but in reality pitting Friedken’s genre-changing masterpiece side by side with Deliver Us From Evil would be a comparative study in subtlety; or lack thereof. While The Exorcist deals with notions of faith and the troubles, self-doubt and guilt that accompany Papal life, Deliver Us From Evil seems to argue two things: that Satan is definitely real, and that only through absolution from God might he be fought. As a result, the film comes across at times as rather preachy, as if patronising its audience from behind a thin veil. Of course, the fact that the film is supposedly based on true accounts should absolve it from any fault in this regard, but it is the clumsy, transparent manner with which the narrative is handled, rather than the actual content, that causes the film most problems.
Clumsy is the operative word. References to the music of The Doors stick out like a sore thumb and ultimately prove a distracting way of referencing the doorways of hell being opened by demonic forces. Sarchie’s familial problems are given little context and the film rather naively expects the viewer to care for a family of characters about whom they know essentially nothing. This, in turn, makes Sarchie’s search for his wife and child towards the film’s close fall flat and fail to have the impact that might been have expected. To put it bluntly, at times Deliver Us From Evil plays out like a particularly bad episode of CSI or any other hole-ridden US cop drama. It is only the effectiveness of its horror sequences that make it worth viewing.
In terms of extras, this Blu Ray release from Sony Pictures has more than enough to keep fans happy, including a director’s commentary and ‘Illuminating Evil’, a making-of that explores the film’s origins and the true accounts upon which it was based. It also features ‘Deliver Us From Demons’, a segment focussing on the film’s visual effects, ‘The Two Sergeants’, which looks at the character of Ralph Sarchie and Eric Bana’s portrayal, and ‘The Demon Detective’, exploring the religious beliefs and continuing work of the real life Sarchie, who now describes himself as a ‘demonologist’.
While Deliver Us From Evil might fall short of the mark for many horror fans, the scares, action and stunning visual effects will be more than enough to ensure the film retains a substantial cult following.
Words: Iain Todd