Deliver Us From Evil tries to merge a gritty urban cop drama with a spiritually charged exorcism thriller and winds up feeling like the worst of two clichés. As police procedural, it’s tedious and generic. As horror, it’s all loud noises and chaotic editing. Instead of getting under your skin, the movie just gives you a headache. It’s a dismal experience.
As the ad campaign proudly touts, Deliver Us From Evil is inspired by “true” events that happened to NYPD veteran and supernatural enthusiast, Ralph Sarchie. He chronicled his encounters with the dark side in a 2001 book Beware the Night, and director Scott Derrickson has been interested in bringing those stories to the screen ever since. It took Derrickson some time to establish credibility as a horror filmmaker—he had a minor hit with 2005’s similarly themed The Exorcism of Emily Rose and made a lot of money on a small budget with the genuinely unsettling Sinister, starring Ethan Hawke—but with the support of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Derrickson’s dedication finally got the film made, though it hardly seems worth the trouble.
Eric Bana stars as a dramatized version of Sarchie, with the film taking place in contemporary New York City and combining several of Sarchie’s unrelated tales into a single plotline revolving around an Iraq War vet (Sean Harris) possessed by a demon. A lapsed Catholic, Sarchie’s no-nonsense approach to police work comes into conflict with the atrocities he endures on the job: domestic violence calls that turn into foot chases, finding a baby in a dumpster, a mother who throws her own child into a ravine at the local zoo. As Sarchie struggles to reconcile his life as a husband and father with the evil that men do, he encounters Father Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who proposes that some violent behavior can be traced to origins far more malevolent than simple human frailty.
The unlikely friendship between Sarchie and Mendoza plays out almost like a pilot for some silly TV procedural about a cop and a priest who team-up to fight supernatural phenomena—except dragged out to a interminable and entirely unnecessary two-hour running time. Bana and Ramirez are both talented actors who have done better work elsewhere, but they’re trapped in a losing battle with weak material here as they struggle to bring depth and interesting shading to roles that are essentially genre caricatures.
The actors aren’t really the problem. Harris does a freaky fine job embodying a vessel for evil, and even offbeat casting choices like former Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn as Sarchie’s concerned wife and Community star Joel McHale as his wisecracking, knife-wielding partner are less distracting than they might sound.
What dooms the movie is Derrickson’s decision to walk the fine line between serious-minded moral drama and full-blown scare machine. It’s a tricky tightrope act, and the film doesn’t come anywhere close to pulling it off. The seemingly endless fake-out jump scares (usually involving an animal popping up out of nowhere) are just annoying, and it’s hard to get invested in the possession victims between all the somber scenes of police investigation. A weird subplot involving the night terrors of Sarchie’s young daughter (Lulu Wilson) seems to be lifted from any number of haunted house thrillers, and the big reveal that Sarchie is battling his own more metaphorical inner demons lands with a dramatic thud (despite Bana’s best efforts to sell it).
The height of Hollywood’s summer season isn’t typically very friendly to horror films, but Deliver Us From Evil is surely hoping to follow in the footsteps of two breakout hits that also flaunted their “realness” for audiences: The Blair Witch Project and last year’s The Conjuring (which shares a minor connection with Deliver in that Sarchie befriended the film’s paranormal investigators, the Warrens, in real life). But it would take more than just an exorcist to pull off a miracle like that.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman; Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool (book)
Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Sean Harris, Dorian Missick, Chris Coy, Lulu Wilson
Release Date: July 2, 2014