“Based on the actual accounts of an NYPD officer,” the promo material for Deliver Us from Evil tells us. Uh-huh. What follows is an over-the-top horror movie that no-one should take seriously, cobbled together from story elements cribbed from possession movies all the way from The Exorcist up to last year’s The Conjuring, with a cop movie spin that feels awfully close to the 1998 Denzel Washington thriller Fallen.
That film wasn’t especially memorable, but did feature one genius bit where the demon – who can freely travel from one body to another – hauntingly taunts Washington’s police detective to the tune of The Rolling Stone’s Time is on My Side in the guise of various passers-by.
Given the cop movie/possession thriller genre mashup, Deliver Us from Evil is already following in Fallen’s footsteps. So imagine my surprise when NYPD detective Ralph Sarchie (played by Eric Bana) arrests a “crazy” (read: stereotypically demon-possessed) woman at the New York Zoo who has tossed her son into a lion pen, and the woman starts chanting The Doors’ Break on Through (to the Other Side).
Well, at least they changed the band, not that these particular lyrics have any role in the story. Soon, Sarchie starts hearing other Doors songs in advance of mysterious goings-on: People are Strange, Soul Kitchen, Riders on the Storm. Sarchie makes the connection when hearing of another case where apartment tenants claim something about opening a ‘door’ to another dimension. Geddit? Doors!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Deliver Us from Evil opens in Iraq in 2010, when a trio of US soldiers makes their way into a cave, the lights go out, and something very bad happens. We don’t see exactly what happens, but Bana’s Sarchie conveniently comes across the footage later on to help fill us in.
Flash-forward three years, and – waitaminute. Most of Deliver Us from Evil takes place in 2013 – last year – and there’s even a seven-months-later epilogue. Those “true events” the film is purportedly based on seem to be pretty recent – they turned this thing around in record time, especially considering that filming took place a year ago, and the script was written at least a year before that. (Actually, the novel the film is based on – Beware the Night, co-written by the real Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool, was released in 2001. But I digress.)
So the Iraqi demon winds up in New York – now there’s a fish-out-of-water sitcom I’d pay to see – and it’s up to Sarchie and partner Butler (Community’s Joel McHale) to figure out just what’s going on when Exorcist-era Linda Blair shows up in their ‘hood. Butler’s a livin’-on-the-edge kind of guy – you can tell by that backwards Boston cap he wears through NYC streets – who leaves his gun holstered and goes after the superhuman demon with a knife. That doesn’t work, so he pulls out another knife. He earns his fate.
Édgar Ramírez (so memorable in Carlos) steals the show as the sexiest exorcist around; I love that introductory scene where this Jesuit priest downs a shot of Jack Daniels and makes goo-goo eyes with a random bar woman. He and Bana offer up a pair of solid lead performances that anchor the film when it threatens to go off the rails; the climactic exorcism scene genuinely works not because of all the f/x flying around the police interrogation room, but because of the chemistry between the two leads.
Olivia Munn has significantly less to work with in the thankless role of Sarchie’s wife. I had to laugh when Sarchie apparently brings home the demon with him (now there’s a nice cop movie metaphor!), which begins to terrify his six-year-old daughter. Whatever “true story” ties this film may have once had are now completely eroded, though the jack-in-the-box, talking stuffed owl, and sock monkey make for some fun haunted artefacts.
Deliver Us from Evil is better-produced than most films of this genre, and features some genuinely spooky atmosphere courtesy of director Scott Derrickson (who scored much better with previous film, Sinister). But this is more of an in-your-face jump-scare affair than last year’s The Conjuring, which used a lot of restraint to create it’s palpable sense of terror, and the result both contradicts it’s true story origins and fails to deliver many genuine scares.
I was surprised to learn that Ralph Sarchie was indeed an NYPD officer-turned-demonologist (he was inspired by Lorraine Warren, who featured in The Conjuring), who detailed his exploits in Beware the Night. A more fact-based account of his life would be fascinating, but what we’re left with in Deliver Us from Evil (from a script by Derrickson & Paul Harris Boardman) is a collection of possession-movie clichés that fails to grab us on anything more than a superficial level.