'Deliver Us from Evil'
‘Sinister’ director Scott Derrickson mashes up the cop and exorcism genres in a way that would seem fresh were it not for his convoluted script, and the fact that ‘Exorcist III’ covered most of this ground 24 years ago. It’s still a decent movie, just nothing special.
As evidenced by the success of ‘Sinister‘ and the recent announcement that he’ll be helming the ‘Doctor Strange’ movie for Marvel, Scott Derrickson has a knack for big, pulpy blockbuster horror films defined by intense atmosphere. Though not afraid to toss in a little comedic relief when necessary, he takes his genre movies very, very seriously. That approach worked well in ‘Sinister’ (and hopefully will work in ‘Doctor Strange’), because it adds bite to pulp without ever feeling exploitative. The trouble is that he also has an interest in religious horror, and his latest feature ‘Deliver Us from Evil’ suffers from all the tedious and ultimately meaningless rhetoric that slowed down his breakout feature ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose‘ almost a decade ago. Both movies made with Derrickson’s writing partner Paul Harris Boardman can’t decide if they want to be spooky explorations of faith or exploitation movies with religious themes. Ultimately, they fail slightly at both.
‘Deliver Us from Evil’ boasts of being based on a true story, but so clearly takes place in movieland that those claims are impossible to take seriously. Eric Bana plays one of those grizzled, haunted and preternaturally gifted detectives who only exist in the movies. He also has a wisecracking partner played by Joel McHale whose character is defined entirely by a backwards baseball cap to ensure that no one mistakes this for reality. In the midst of their usual skull-cracking and crime-fighting rounds of duty, the duo stumble onto a bizarre case involving a mother who threw her toddler to lions at the zoo and a creepy hooded bad guy (Sean Harris) at the crime scene who seemed to make her do it. Soon, the case centers around a trio of Iraq war veterans who brought something evil back from the war with them. Bana picks up a new partner in a super-cool, leather-jacket-wearing man of the cloth (Edgar Ramirez) to provide open theological discussion and a straight line to an inevitable exorcism climax. It’s the same genre mash-up from William Peter Blatty’s deeply underrated ‘Exorcist III’, only not nearly as intelligently written or viscerally thrilling.
The problems with the movie start with Derrickson’s greatest strength as a filmmaker: tone. The guy knows how to seep underneath his audience’s skin with a sense of dread, but here that technique is set on overkill. This is a movie that feels so oppressively dark that there’s no room for levity. That’s fine in a straight-ahead horror film, but Derrickson wants ‘Deliver Us from Evil’ to work as a buddy picture, a police procedural, a theological think piece, and an action movie as well. The ambition is admirable, but the execution buckles under the weight of too many competing tones and ideas for what should ultimately be a bit of B-movie entertainment.
On technical level, the movie delivers some rich visuals and big scares. The cast is stronger than you’d expect from a horror flick (other than McHale, but that’s more the fault of his underwritten character than the actor himself). The film has quite a bit going for it, and isolated sequences deliver wonderfully on Derrickson’s ideas and his skill with giving viewers the chilly-willies. Unfortunately, the project never quite holds together. It’s not a failure by any means, just hardly a success.
As a result of the movie’s problems and an ill-concieved summer release date, it’s likely that ‘Deliver Us from Evil’ will vanish from the box office as quickly as it appeared. Under normal circumstances, that would be cause for concern in terms of the director’s career. But given that Derrickson has already signed on to do ‘Doctor Strange’, he has nothing to worry about there. This movie is already a footnote in his career.