Recently announced to direct the big screen adaptation of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the career of Scott Derrickson can most kindly be described as erratic. There was little positive to be said about his feature debut, the literally straight-to-video-Hell sequel Hellraiser: Inferno, though his courtroom drama horror mashup The Exorcism of Emily Rose could not fail to be more successful, financially and creatively. With no hand in the script for the misconceived and bungled remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still he cannot be held fully for it’s abject failure, and his subsequent return to horror with Sinister had strong performances and a welcome twisted streak.
His latest film is another horror mashup of demonic possession, this time presented as a police procedural with more than a passing nod to David Fincher’s Se7en, though drawing far too liberally from William Friedkin’s untouchable work on the subject The Exorcist and featuring a dreary lighting design drawn from Mathieu Kassovitz’s studio mauled Gothika, for not since that film have there been so many blown lightbulbs, flickering fluorescents, power outages and dingy basements. Rather than creating an atmosphere of darkness when necessary, by plunging the entire film into blackout no contrast is created, making the already indulgent two hour running time even more tiresome.
As was The Exorcist based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, itself inspired by alleged incidents in Maryland in 1949, so Deliver Us From Evil is based on the obscure Beware the Night, “the terrifying true story of demonic possession and exorcism in a city under diabolical siege” by retired New York police officer and demonologist Ralph Sarchie and co-writer Lisa Collier Cool, the sparse user reviews on Amazon encompassing “the scariest book I’ve read” and “the ramblings of a delusional cop.”
Former Hulk Eric Bana is Ralph Sarchie, married with a young daughter, both of whom he is increasingly distant from as a result of the demands of his job, his “radar” drawing him to cases which inevitably spiral into darkness. Following a report of a domestic disturbance, Sarchie and his partner Butler (Community’s Joel McHale) attend and arrest the husband, Jimmy Tratner (True Blood‘s Chris Coy), and later are called to the zoo where a mentally unstable woman, Jane Crenna (Olivia Horton), has thrown her young child into the lion enclosure.
Reviewing security camera footage (the cameras still working despite a sudden power cut during the incident, as do the electronic locks on the pens), Sarchie sees Crenna was talking to a man inside the pen immediately prior to her manic incident. A third apparently unconnected case takes them to a house where a dead body is discovered, a decorator whose suicide is complicated in that his business partner has concealed the body and left the scene, and Sarchie finds pictographs in the basement matching those seen at the zoo.
Searching the house of the deceased decorator, Sarchie finds a photograph of him on a tour of duty in Iraq with Tratner and a third man, Santino (Sean Harris, as tattooed and manic as in Prometheus but this time possessed by demonic forces rather than alien goo), whom Sarchie recognises as the man from the zoo. Returning to Tratner’s house, he finds the same pictographs and goes to the mental hospital to interrogate Crenna, where his visit is accompanied by the Jesuit priest Mendoza (Wrath of the Titans’ Édgar Ramírez) who counsels him to look elsewhere for answers as there are specific signs indicating the presence of an evil spirit, to which lapsed Catholic Sarchie reasonably responds that he won’t blame invisible fairies.
Reliable even with substandard material, Bana, Ramírez, McHale and Harris are all excellent but they are not enough to keep the leaden film afloat. Though Ramírez diffuses the heavy exposition scenes with gentle persuasion and the scenes in which he and Bana share their psychological and philosophical viewpoints give the film much needed substance, placed so late in the film they only serve to slow it further when it should be gathering momentum.
Sarchie’s key relationship should be with his wife Jen, yet with no reflection upon Iron Man 2’s Olivia Munn who has been saddled with the barest hint of a character, the entirety of her presence stretches from needy to whining. When her husband arrives home, arm bandaged having been savaged due to his own foolishness at the asylum, she does not even enquire as to what happened to him. While perhaps a scene was cut, that does not forgive the oversight other than that any action to reduce the running time could be considered a blessing.
Presented as police procedural, anything which undermines that pretence reduces the authority of the film, and the lack of an apparent parallel investigation into the death of an officer on duty or search of the home and work premises of the prime suspect in a double kidnapping, subjected to an exorcism rather than an interrogation, is ridiculous, and with the whole of the final act of the film devoted to the rite, the second public demonstration that Friedkin’s masterpiece remains beyond Derrickson’s ability, the film has nothing left in its meagre bag of tricks but a predictable anticlimax.