I’ve expressed in the past my dislike of scary movies “based on real events”. Meant to further our suspension of disbelief, the conceit actually limits the narrative by always focusing on a middle American family lest we have trouble relating to the characters, always keeping the stakes low lest we wonder why we haven’t heard about this on the news, and always ensuring that everyone turns out all right in the end lest we feel guilty about deriving entertainment from a real-life tragedy. Simply put, the subgenre trades in clichés, not drama, and you’d be hard pressed to find a sequence in Deliver Us from Evil that you haven’t seen before in The Exorcist (1973), The Conjuring (2013), or some Antoine Fuqua cop thriller.
Indeed, screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman draws from the hardboiled procedural of all sources, chronicling a week in the life of Detective Sarchie (Eric Bana) as he’s confronted with weirder and weirder cases until a pattern of “primary evil” emerges. This results in Deliver Us from Evil bombarding us with such tired cop tropes as the snarky partner (Joel McHale) who takes unnecessary risks, the supportive but increasingly nagging wife (Olivia Munn) who just wants her husband to let her in, and the botched arrest eating at our hero’s conscience.
Incidentally, the latter revelation proves so over the top I can’t imagine how Deliver Us from Evil could have based it on “real events” without miring the NYPD in a massive scandal and landing half of the characters in jail. We’re talking murder, cover-up, and a department-wide conspiracy here! I’m also tickled that director Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Scott Kevan expect us to believe that elite police officers never turn on the lights when working the night shift, favouring a creepy atmosphere over the opportunity to read and write at their desks. So much for furthering our suspension of disbelief!
Mind you, I’ve never much cared for law enforcement in horror fiction. Part of the problem lies in my being Canadian and therefore having no idea what it’s like to unload a full clip every time I hear a strange noise. More to the point, cops generally represent authority and security, notions that kind of go against scaring the bejeesus out of your audience. Granted, a helpless police force can sometimes help cement a story’s sense of doom, such as in The Walking Dead, but Deliver Us from Evil treats its officers more as guardian angels: humanity’s last line of defense against the terrors that lurk in the shadows. Did I mention Detective Sarchie wrote the book on which this is based?
It speaks to Derrickson’s talent as a filmmaker that the first half of Deliver Us from Evil still had me on the edge of my seat. I like the way he speeds through our hero’s disjointed caseload to keep us off balance. We start off with a newborn left in a back-alley dumpster, cut to a domestic abuse call, then move on to a manhunt in a closed zoo, and somehow, fifteen minutes later, end up in a haunted apartment with a bloated corpse in the basement. Nearly an hour passes before the movie starts pulling all these threads together, introducing its central conceit of demonic possession.
Ironically, that’s exactly when Deliver Us from Evil falls apart, devolving into a haphazard string of horror clichés punctuated by Father Mendoza’s (Édgar Ramírez) relentless exposition. Don’t get me wrong: I dig the sex/drug addict turned Catholic priest turned master demonologist, and Derrickson makes great use of his status as a disposable character, isolating him at the same time as Sarchie’s cannon-fodder partner so that we can fret over which is going to bite the dust first. However, the seams start to show when the padre asks our hero to confess his darkest sin for no other reason than because the story has reached its climax.
Oh, and what an awful climax it is: an interminable exorcism sequence wherein Sarchie shouts Bible passages at a scarred, hyperactive chain-smoker (Sean Harris) as if no one had ever heard of Linda Blair. Our hero faces no real danger because his opponent is handcuffed to a metal chair, and we couldn’t care less whether the baddie survives because we’ve only known him as a possessed serial killer. In a way, the man serves as a perfect metaphor for Deliver Us from Evil: preachy and familiar-looking but completely devoid of a soul.