In 2005, Scott Derrickson directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This genuinely scary film with a surprisingly strong cast seemed to mark the director out as someone who could inject fresh energy into a genre in perpetual need of revitalisation — the horror film. But Derrickson's subsequent career hasn't been as promising. He directed the unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the grisly Ethan Hawke horror flick Sinister. Now, with Deliver Us from Evil, he returns to exorcisms, with diminishing returns.
The film opens in Iraq, where we see a group of U.S. soldiers in a gun battle, and follow two of them into a cave. Five minutes later, after it's been vaguely established that there was something horrible hiding in the darkness, we've yanked over to a rainy, dismal NYC straight out of David Fincher's Se7en. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), a cop with an intuition, or "radar", for criminal activity, answers a domestic violence call with his partner and ends up chasing a deranged ex-armyman. Soon after, they're called over to investigate an incident at the zoo where a woman, after throwing her boy into the pit surrounding the lion enclosure, behaves like she's possessed. In the enclosure is a man with a scarred face. Is this person linked in some way to the wife-beater? Could they be the soldiers from the opening scene? It's almost too easy...
As Sarchie tries to make sense of the increasingly otherworldy events that keep occurring around him, we're introduced to the other film's other lead. We first see him in a leather jacket, jogging, then ducking into a bar, having a drink and being hit on. When it turns out that he's a Jesuit priest, the movie's evangelical agenda becomes clear. When you have Edgar Ramírez, an actor striking enough to be transfixed by his own naked body in Carlos, playing a man of the cloth, what chance does Satan really have?
Anyway, Sarchie and Mendoza team up, like big city cops and exorcists often do. By this time, the detective has begun to lose the plot — much like the film itself. Bizarre narrative red herrings are thrown at the audience, the most prominent being the references to the music of The Doors. Their lyrics appear at crime scenes and Sarchie keeps hearing snatches of their songs, but we're never told why. I kept hoping the film would find a way to blame the Satanism on Jim Morrison, but Derrickson takes his exorcisms and possessions very seriously.
Deliver Us from Evil is, for a while, and in the most unsubtle way possible, quite scary. Imagine someone jumping out of the dark at you every five minutes for two hours, and you have some idea of Derrickson's idea of suspense-building. Time after time in the film, the lights flickered, the violins on the soundtrack started screeching and I steeled myself for the sudden appearance of a blood-streaked face or a contorted body (or, on one memorable occasion, a gutted cut arranged like Christ on the cross). As one can imagine, this became more wearying than scary after a while.
Incompetence envelops this film like a fog. The writing is TV drama cliché: how's anyone allowed to say "There's a darkness growing inside of me"? The action scenes are poorly lit and chaotic; the soundtrack — when it isn't The Doors — is jaw-clenchingly obvious. McHale overdoes the comic sidekick shtick, Bana is scarcely believable as a New York City cop, and Ramírez just about manages not to look silly shouting Latin phrases in a Spanish accent.
Derrickson ends his film by inviting a foolhardy comparison — he references The Godfather's baptism scene. I'd advise a rewatch of that film over Deliver Us from Evil — there's more authentic horror in Michael's false assurance to Kay than in the entirety of Derrickson's film. Then again, I'd recommend Dude, Where's My Car? over Deliver Us from Evil.
This review appeared in The Sunday Guardian.