According to the press hype, Deliver Us from Evil is based on the real-life exploits of retired New York City police officer Ralph Sarchie, who claims that his confrontations with demonic evil and possession while on duty in the city’s gritty South Bronx not only led him to reaffirm his belief in God but to take up what he calls (in the book that inspired this movie) the Work: assisting operatives from the Catholic Church with actual exorcisms in the many cases that Sarchie came across. I don’t know if anything that happened to Sarchie was truly supernatural or even real, although it seems to me that the level of mayhem displayed in the film version of his life story would have certainly attracted a lot of attention from not just the cops, but the New York media.
I lived in New York most of my life and don’t remember hearing about any of this, but maybe that’s because day-to-day life often doesn’t play out like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, which is what Deliver Us from Evil is. And make no mistake: while Scott Derrickson is credited as the director and co-screenwriter (with Paul Harris Boardman) on this picture, it plays a lot less like Derrickson’s previous, very creepy horror films — 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose and 2012’s Sinister — and more like a typical Bruckheimer action smash-‘em-up combined with one of his gazillion TV police procedurals of the day (C.S.I., etc.).
Part of the problem with Deliver Us from Evil — which works way too hard and is much too loud and frantic to ever really scare you — is that Derrickson and Boardman had to graft a more conventional narrative spine on Sarchie’s memoir, which is essentially a collection of anecdotes. The nominal plot — which involves Bana investigating three returned veterans from Iraq who seem to have brought an ancient evil back with them from the desert — grafts incidents onto that spine in a way that makes it seem, implausibly, like satanic evil is breaking out all over the city. Think of it as a serious version of Ghostbusters.
The team this time consists of Eric Bana, who plays Sarchie with an almost comedically pronounced Noo Yawk accent and equally over-the-top intensity; Joel McHale (yes, the snarky host of E!’s The Soup) as his wise-cracking, tough guy partner, who you know is in trouble from the moment you meet him; and Edgar Ramirez as a leather-jacketed priest who likes to ogle a waitress now and then but delivers the holy fire when called upon to do so. It’s actually Ramirez who gives the best and most nuanced performance, hinting at layers of complexity in a character that could have been just another reprise of Jason Miller’s Father Karras in The Exorcist; I almost wish the movie was mainly about him.
That’s because Bana, while working hard, is not just miscast but given one of film’s most stock people to play: the cop haunted by what he sees on the job who represses it all. Of course, he ends up lashing out at his wife and daughter. The former is played by Olivia Munn, who has little to do except robotically repeat her concern for Bana and the effect it’s all having on their family. It’s a thankless role made even more stereotypical when Bana’s family, as you might expect, become demonic targets themselves (although that scene you’ve viewed in the commercials, where a little stuffed owl bounces off a shelf and rolls closer to the daughter’s bed, is one of the film’s more effective ones).
It turns out that one of those three soldiers is possessed and somehow able to spread the demonic influence to others, so it’s to our three heroes to chase him around the South Bronx before he…I don’t know what exactly his agenda is, to tell you the truth. The best moments in the film are some of the quiet theological exchanges between Bana and Ramirez, clearly patterned after those in The Exorcist; the scariest are when the cops probe into darkened, abandoned houses and basements. Derrickson is one of the best at using negative space; in all his horror outings, you are constantly on edge because of what you think is about to emerge from the solid blackness he often surrounds his characters in. While both Emily Rose and Sinister are flawed, they are also both among the best horror films of the past 10 years because of Derrickson’s ability to create a thick atmosphere of dread. That talent shines through intermittently here (although with his instinct for eerie musical drops, this time courtesy of the Doors).
But then the jump scares, shock noises, and heavy-handed action come crashing in all over again. Now, I understand why Jerry Bruckheimer has never produced a horror film before: it’s because he doesn’t understand them. Not that Derrickson himself is above having something jump out at you from time to time; he just knows how to ladle it out more effectively than he does here. Deliver Us from Evil is not scary; it’s just exhausting. The best horror comes from the dawning, often subtle realization that something is dreadfully awry with the world. This film, for the most part, lets you know before, during, and after something happens that things are going bad, often in thudding, grating style.
We have to give credit where it’s due: to Ramirez for his fine work; to the rest of the cast for at least trying if they don’t succeed (including Olivia Horton as the film’s one shudder-inducing possessee); to Scott Kevan for his incredibly beautiful and glossy cinematography; and to Derrickson for wringing what he can out of the project. He’s clearly interested in the themes of faith vs. non-belief, which have surfaced in his previous work, and he’s got a sharp eye for presenting the supernatural in unique ways (which bodes well for his next assignment, Marvel’s Doctor Strange). But by mixing horror with the overused police procedural and action thriller tropes that the producer has specialized in for decades — while using the “based on a true story” canard that audiences seem to need on their fright films these days — the filmmaker ends up delivering very little that we haven’t seen before, and better.