Deliver Us From Evil, the new film from writer/director Scott Derrickson, is an interesting mash-up of genres. The film can be a straight-up police procedural, following an NYPD officer through his beat protecting the streets of the South Bronx. But when the protagonist’s central case turns out to involve demonic possession, the movie begins to show off its paranormal horror side. It’s a rather natural fit, as both sides dabble in the concepts of good and evil, and they dovetail thematically for Derrickson’s purposes. The problem is that once the supernatural elements begin to dig their claws in too deeply, the film turns into every single generic exorcism movie you’ve seen since The Exorcist.
Inspired by a true story, the film stars Eric Bana as Ralph Sarchie, a good cop with a history of anger issues and a defined instinct – jokingly called “radar” by his partner (Joel McHale) – for trouble cases and danger. Investigating a case at the Bronx Zoo where a woman had tossed her child into a lion pit, his attention is drawn to a strange hooded man who was a witness to the crime, painting the walls inside the pit. While the witness is able to escape when approached for questioning, it isn’t the last time that the two come face to face.
When elements of two other cases begin to connect back to the incident at the zoo, Sarchie begins to realize that there is definitely some kind of bigger picture at play, and that certain parts of it don’t make any kind of Earthly sense. This draws the attention of Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a Spanish/Hungarian priest who believes he knows exactly what’s going on: there’s a demon on the loose in New York City. All the while, taking a back seat to Sarchie’s work, are his wife (Olivia Munn) and daughter (Lulu Wilson) -- but it’s not long before the cop’s work begins to find its way into his home.
Before the movie forsakes its originality for a paint-by-numbers approach to demon-related horror filmmaking in the third act, it actually does a surprisingly number of things well. Much like what was accomplished in Derrickson’s last directorial effort, Sinister -- a film I had very similar feelings about – Deliver Us From Evil successfully manifests a dark, haunting atmosphere that will successfully creep under the audience’s skin. What’s more, the director has a very keen sense of where to position his strongest scares, not always putting them exactly where you expect, and occasionally placing them exactly where you don’t (though his overuse of stock audio clips – namely “children laughing” and “radio fuzz” – ranges from distracting to grating). Bana and Ramirez are also serviceable in their roles, both successfully disappearing into their parts and having good chemistry with the other.
Through most of my screening of Deliver Us From Evil I was mentally preparing to write a largely positive review, but the conclusion of the film is really so unspectacular and ordinary that it ended up souring the rest in retrospect. Without spoiling the twists and turns (of which there really aren’t any), by the end of the movie’s runtime, it has completely used up every exorcism trope you can think of – from a crisis of faith, to revealing of horrific truths, to the whole “tell me your name, demon” bit. The movie also doesn’t even bother giving an interesting conclusion to all of the strange events happening to Sarchie’s family, turning it into a vestigial plotline that could be axed from the film completely without affecting any other scene.
The idea of a film following a police officer and a rogue priest expelling the forces of hell from the streets of New York is a great premise with hundreds of interesting possibilities. But Deliver Us From Evil ignores those routes, instead ultimately taking the safest, most generic path possible. Perhaps this is to blame on the source material, the real Ralph Sarchie’s book “Beware The Night.” If that’s true, then this should have been a case where the filmmakers should have had the wherewithal to make the necessary creative adjustments.