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“Deliver Us From Evil”

Deliver Us From Evil Screen Gems

Screen Gems

David Ives - published on 07/04/14

The film will likely lose more than a few secular critics.

Scott Derrickson has had a pretty good run as a writer/director in the horror genre. After breaking onto the scene with Hellraiser: Inferno, one of the only watchable sequels in that far too long running franchise, Derrickson went on to make paranormal crowd pleasers such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. (Yes, I skipped over the disappointing remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, but Derrickson didn’t write it and it wasn’t horror, so why don’t we just forget about that one for right now? Please?)

With such a cinematic track record to his credit, Derrickson has proven he’s a guy who knows how to craft a creepy scene.

Along with his skills as a filmmaker, there are also other things which make Derrickson interesting to someone like myself who reviews movies for a faith-based outlet. As it turns out, Derrickson is one of the few mainstream directors currently working in Hollywood who doesn’t mind putting his Christian faith front and center in his films.

In a 2010 interview with Film School Rejects, Derrickson explained, “I think my attraction to science fiction and horror is that they invite religious exploration in ways that other genres don’t, and when religion is paired with horror or sci-fi, a lot of typical religious baggage falls away. It’s also important for me to not feel that my thoughts and feelings about spirituality must be compartmentalized creatively. I want that part of my life and interest to be a part of my creative process.”

So, given the success of his past films combined with his overtly religious worldview, it’s hard not to carry a few expectations into Derrickson’s latest effort, Deliver Us From Evil, especially given the movie’s subject matter.

The film is loosely (and I mean very loosely) inspired by Beware the Night, the book which purports to detail the real life investigations into the paranormal by seven times decorated NYPD officer Ralph Sarchie. A lapsed Catholic, Sarchie’s confrontations with the supernatural would eventually drive him to retire from the police force in order to pursue a calling as a demonologist and sometimes assistant in exorcisms to the well-known sedeprivationist “Bishop” Robert McKenna. With that kind of source material, how could a faith based movie reviewer resist seeing this movie?

The film does start out pretty much like one would expect. After a brief prologue set in the Middle East where three soldiers discover something in a strange cave, the movie jumps to New York City where Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his partner, Butler (Community’s Joe McHale), spend their evenings patrolling and following up on Sarchie’s never failing “hunches” regarding the calls which come over their police scanner. It’s while responding to one such a call at The Bronx Zoo where a mother, apparently at the bidding of a mysterious hooded man, has thrown her toddler into the lion enclosure, that the pair first run across the rather unorthodox Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez).

As the police watch the obviously disturbed mother claw at the ground and recite lyrics from Doors songs (a recurring theme in the movie sure to aggravate Morrison fans), the plain-clothed priest (yes, he’s a Jesuit) implies there is more to the incident than just a case of mental illness, but refuses to elaborate. After a few more related occurrences involving the hooded figure, however, Mendoza comes clean and suggests to Sarchie that demonic forces may be at work in the city, an explanation the faithless policemen is loathe to consider despite the growing evidence. It’s only when those forces begin to follow Sarchie back to his already troubled home that Sarchie starts to take the priest seriously. All in all, it’s a fairly standard setup for an exorcism movie, which is fine considering Derrickson’s past success with that kind of story.

Unfortunately, this is where any kind of up-front expectations work against Deliver Us From Evil, at least at first. While the movie does indeed mark Derrickson’s return to the exorcism genre, it is in no way an eerie get-under-your-skin creepfest like Emily Rose or a slow-burn thriller along the lines of Sinister, nor does it want to be. So, anyone (like perhaps myself) who goes into Deliver Us From Evil hoping the movie will retread the same ground those two films did is likely to experience some initial pangs of disappointment. It doesn’t take long to realize the movie is less concerned with being scary (which it’s not for the most part) than it is in being a suspense-filled action-tinged bromance with spiritual overtones. Basically, rather than giving us Emily Rose Part 2, Derrickson has instead decided to offer us his take on the movie Se7en.

Once you make the mental connection, the similarities between the two movies are pretty obvious. Two anguished souls investigate a string of religious themed killings in a New York City that’s more rain soaked Sodom and Gomorrah than it is shiny Big Apple. Sarchie, with his family and lack of faith, fills the Brad Pitt role nicely, while the world weary Mendoza abley substitutes for Morgan Freeman. The difference, of course, is that instead of religion and faith being a subtext as it was in Se7en, the inclusion of the priest and the supernatural elements bring those themes to the forefront in Deliver Us From Evil.

And this is where the film will likely lose more than a few secular critics. You see, unlike Freeman’s character in Se7en, Father Mendoza has not been crippled by his past mistakes (and boy has he made a few as the story eventually reveals), but rather with God’s help has allowed those experiences to help him grow stronger. So, once confronted with the faith shaking events of the case they are working on together, Mendoza is able to offer the troubled Sarchie more than a few tired platitudes from a beaten down man. He instead offers confession, absolution, and redemption. What Derrickson appears to be doing in Deliver Us From Evil is asking the simple question, what if, instead of a bunch of sad nihilists, at least one of the characters in Se7en had been a practicing Christian? That kind of in your face religiosity is bound to be Kryptonite to at least half the reviewers out there.

That’s not to say all of the negative reviews which are likely to appear will be completely unwarranted. As a horror film, Deliver Us From Evil is admittedly one of Derrickson’s lesser efforts. From the prologue which can’t help but bring to mind The Exorcist to the final seen-it-all-before exorcism, the horror elements in the film are mostly derivative of other films and not really that frightening. So it’s hard to fault anyone who finds the movie a failure as a pure horror film.

But, again, that’s not where the movie’s heart lies. If you go into Deliver Us From Evil expecting less of a fright fest and more of a supernaturally themed cop drama, then you might just find yourself enjoying the film for what it actually wants to be.

Plus, I have to be honest, even though it’s a Hollywood film about exorcism, it amazingly gets about 95% of the Catholic stuff right. For that alone I can’t be too hard on it, can I?

David Ives reviews new releases for Aleteia and spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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