“DELIVER US FROM EVIL” (Movie Review)
Forgive DELIVER US FROM EVIL its trespasses, for it finds new ways to negotiate the tropes of the possession genre, and climaxes with what may be the best exorcism sequence since the devil was cast out of Linda Blair.
The fresh approach here is to combine the demon-made-me-do-it stuff with a detective procedural, inspired (as the ads make sure you’re aware) by actual cases investigated by Ralph Sarchie, a real-life Bronx cop who became a self-styled demonologist. The inspiration is pretty loose, considering that Sarchie worked the beat he wrote about in his book BEWARE THE NIGHT in the ’80s and ’90s and the movie is set in 2013, when many parts of the borough had been cleaned up. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from many scenes in DELIVER US, though, as the screen Sarchie (Eric Bana), sometimes accompanied by partner Butler (Joel McHale), prowl through the dankest, filthiest apartments and basements you’d never want to explore. Their case has its origins in Iraq, which can be seen as a tip of the hat to THE EXORCIST, though here the opening scene has to do not with archaeology but with shock and awe.
In the first of several setpieces put together with eerie efficiency by director Scott Derrickson (who scripted with Paul Harris Boardman), a group of U.S. soldiers venture into a desert cave and encounter something even scarier than insurgents. Back in the States, Sarchie, guided by what Butler calls “radar” for the heavier cases, become embroiled in a series of especially heavy calls, among them a woman who has done something horrible at the Bronx Zoo, which leads to an especially unnerving encounter for Sarchie himself. A seriously lapsed Catholic, Sarchie is all too happy to write off the strange behavior he witnesses as psychosis, until a Jesuit priest named Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) turns up, insisting that there are darker forces behind the horrible acts.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL’s two genre strands both follow familiar narrative paths: the devout believer slowly convinces the skeptic of the existence of the occult, and the hard-bitten cop obsesses over his work to the point of alienating his wife (Olivia Munn) and young daughter. Some of Derrickson’s terror tricks are tried-and-true as well, like the series of sudden gotcha! jolts and pretty much every animal scare known to filmmaking: a squealing cat, a sudden-barking dog, ominous owls, hungry lions (OK, you don’t see that last one in horror films every day). If this movie lacks the edgy originality of Derrickson’s previous SINISTER, it nonetheless demonstrates that he can bring prosaic ingredients to a boil and serve them up with healthy gobs of atmosphere. He knows that there’s no scarier way to light a scene than solely by flashlight, as Sarchie is required to do at numerous points in his investigation.
Derrickson really gets his mojo cooking in the film’s second half; just when the narrative has started to meander, he wrenches it back into focus with a lengthy, intense sequence in which Sarchie and Butler each confront an evil-imbued attacker in different parts of a building. It’s a taut, scary setpiece and the best part of the movie, though a strong runner-up is the finale, when the chief malefactor has been captured and must have the ancient cleansing rite performed upon him. It’s hardly a surprise that this story ends with an exorcism, but just the fact that the afflicted is a him instead of the usual girl or young woman brings a different dynamic to this school of film, and the physical and emotional confrontation between good and evil is powerfully staged and performed.
In a characterization significantly altered from the real Sarchie—who was compelled to take on the occult by his deep-seated faith—Bana brings conviction and a tangible inner turmoil to a cop who’s haunted in ways that have nothing to do with the supernatural (and struggles a bit with his Bronx accent as well). Ramirez counters his driven demeanor by underplaying Mendoza, turning things up a few notches when face to face with evil and employing the “weapons” of his religion. McHale gets off a few good wisecracks and is believable in his action moments—Butler’s a knife enthusiast who prefers to battle with blades even when he’s got a gun on his belt—but the movie is stolen by its possessees. Sean Harris and Chris Coy are scarily malevolent and really do seem to have been taken over by another being in their big moments, as does Olivia Horton as the afflicted mom. Their thesping efforts are enhanced to no end by the makeup FX by BLACK SWAN’s Mike Marino, who contributes a remarkable collection of grotesquely realistic wounds, human-inflicted and otherwise.
The entire craft package, in fact, is first-rate, from Scott Kevan’s sharp-yet-shadowy cinematography and the audioscape created by composer Christopher Young and sound designer Paul N.J. Ottosson. One odd element here is a fixation on the music of The Doors, which Derrickson attempts to thematically link to his subject matter (doors to the paranormal are being opened, and demons are breaking on through to the other side), but just comes off as kinda awkward, especially when it comes into play during that exorcism. It does make the perfect accompaniment for Aaron Becker’s way-cool end-titles sequence, though.