A Review by Ethan Dunlap
The supernatural has been one of the most frequently explored areas in the history of fiction. Ever since humanity grasped the concept of imagination, and to convey that imagination in the form of storytelling, the tales of ghosts and phantoms, of vengeful demons and restless spirits, have littered the tapestry of fiction. This has continued into the 21st century, where it seems each new year brings us a cavalcade of the paranormal; 2010 gave us James Wan’s refreshing ghost thriller Insidious and the embarrassingly mishandled The Last Exorcism, 2012 brought Scott Derrickson’s surprising chiller Sinister, and just last year saw two supernatural horror films from James Wan (the excellent The Conjuring and the criminally underrated Insidious: Chapter 2). In this modern era of cinema, the growing trend that innumerable haunted house and demonic possession movies have jumped onto is branding themselves as being “Based On A True Story”. Deliver Us From Evil, Scott Derrickson’s new exorcism/cop thriller (a sentence I never thought I’d say), does just that.
Allow me to address the elephant in the room; I don’t think 90% of this movie actually happened.
When any film, particularly in the horror genre, sells itself as being a TRUE STORY, it is always best to take it with a grain of salt. It is nothing more than a harmless gimmick, made to stir up publicity and put large sacks of money in the producer’s front lawn; and truly, it has no bearing on the quality of said movie. In fact, many of the films that claim this are actually very well done; The Conjuring was one of the best major releases of last summer, and I believe the events of that movie to be true about as much as I believe The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to be a documentary about the fall of the bourgeoisie. The duty of an effective horror film is not to have journalistic integrity, but to weave an entertaining story while at the same time exuding a sense of fear or unease onto the audience. This, ultimately, is where Deliver Us From Evil fails.
This is not a bad film; it is, in many respects, a very, very good one. It has an unorthodox mix of genres that make perfect sense together (a cop thriller and a supernatural horror tale), a solid cast featuring stand-out performances from Eric Bana and Joel McHale, and a terrific unsettling score. The problem is that instead of the cop angle and horror angle working seamlessly to create a story that utilizes the best of both genres, the two seem to clash. It does not know whether it wants to be a police thriller or a demonic possession movie, and it becomes very obvious which genre it would have been best in.
The weakest part of the movie, what truly holds this back from being great, is the horror element; which is bizarre, given Derrickson’s obvious skill at using fear to tell an effective story, evidenced in both Sinister and 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. What made those films work was the ability to build tension; both have their share of jump scares, but a majority of the time there was a steady air of unease that built and built until finally coming to a head. However, with this film, every time the atmosphere is beginning to set in (and if there’s one thing Derrickson knows, it’s atmosphere), it is immediately punctured by a loud music spike and a shot of a cat, or a potted plant falling, or some mundane act of the like. The problem with jump scares is that, contrary to what their name suggests, they are not scary. They are simply startling, the cinematic equivalent of your friend jumping out from behind a tree and wailing “OOGAHBOOGABOOGA!”. The tactic has become infuriatingly popular in the horror genre since the early 2000s, turning most of the mainstream offerings from potentially effective movies into loud, bombastic trite that aims to surprise rather than scare. In the first two acts of this film, instead of lingering, the “frights” disappear faster than the jarring music note that cued them in. I cannot help but feel bad for Derrickson, a highly talented director with an unfortunately spotty track record, for the tired and uninspired over-use of jump scares reek of studio meddling. This makes it all the more heartbreaking, because there are moments where it is obvious that Derrickson is attempting to try new things in the admittedly fairly stale genre of exorcism movies; between the blending of the police drama element, and the fact that one of the characters has a close-quarters knife fight with a possessed man (something that I am surprised I have never before seen in a mainstream horror film), it is clear that given more creative control, this movie had the potential to be a breath of fresh air in a genre that has grown tired and muddled.
Many individual elements don’t work, the most major and insulting being the possessions. Unable to recapture his unsettling depiction in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Derrickson’s version of the possessed in this film comes off as more comedic than frightening; even the main figure, whom engages in the previously mentioned knife fight and is very imposing from an action standpoint, never truly came off as scary. Logical inconsistencies bog down the movie as well, such as when the leads are investigating the Bronx Zoo after a massive power outage, and yet are able to enter the lion den, which has electronically activated gates. In a better movie, this gripe would only be a nitpick, but among this mediocre fair, it actually highlights the ineptitude of the rather shallow script (a script that perhaps should have gone through one or two more drafts). Also dragging the film down is the unenthused performance of Edgar Ramirez as the token priest. On paper, this character has the potential to be genuinely fascinating; a former heroin addict, haunted by the ghosts of his past, who continues to indulge in cigarettes and hard liquor to tame his temptations to use again. However, any of this potential is immediately squandered by Ramirez, who delivers each line in a monotone that likely was meant to be stoic and weary (perhaps to illustrate the character’s past struggle with substance abuse), but instead comes off as wooden and lifeless. In the hands of a more capable actor, such as Pedro Pascal or Clifton Collins Jr., this character could have emulated the pain and weariness that was no doubt intended.
Conversely, the cop element of the movie is perfect. We are introduced to Bana’s protagonist, Ralph Sarchie, in a refreshingly somber shot of him recovering a dead baby from the dumpster of a dingy South Bronx alleyway. Before delving into the disappointing horror plot, the audience is treated to an excellent sequence where Bana and his partner (played by an outstanding Joel McHale) respond to a domestic violence call, leading to a chase scene which ends with Bana savagely beating a skinhead wife-beater on the streets of New York. Once the third act kicks in, which is easily the best part of the movie, the horror gives way to police action, the highlight of which is the aforementioned fantastic knife fight between Joel McHale and the possessed figure the cops have been tailing for the entire film; its brutal, exciting cinematography made me wish it was gracing a much better movie. Immediately afterward, we get treated to a flashback sequence (shot on what looks like Super 8, a nice visual reference to the disturbing home movies in Sinister), where Bana chases down a notorious pedophile and ferociously beats him to death in broad daylight. Watching this sequence made me think, “I wish I was watching that movie instead”. This is also a film that fully embraces its R rating, as opposed to homogenizing every aspect into a tame PG-13 as the modern Hollywood horror scene is apt to do; the characters in this movie cuss up a storm, they chain smoke, they down hard booze like there is no tomorrow. This is a movie where the characters have vices, complimenting the refreshingly gritty and somber tone that Derrickson conveys. By not subjecting the film to the squeaky-clean tone that litters the works preceding it, it is saved from the cinematic death trap of blandness. Disjointed and disappointing as the film no doubt is, it does not commit the cardinal sin of moviemaking; it does not fall prey to mediocrity.
Deliver Us From Evil is not a terrible film; it is not even a bad one. It is an excellent cop thriller trapped inside a mediocre horror movie. While not being Derrickson’s worst movie (that would have to go to 2008’s utterly forgettable remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still), it is easily his most disappointing, both because of the stellar job he did with his previous horror offering, and because of the hints of true promise that were squandered by an under-developed script and extensive studio meddling.