"Deliver Us From Evil" Starts Strong, Fades Fast

On paper, Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us From Evil” is an eye-catching hybrid of police procedural and exorcism screamer, a potentially sly packaging of two genres that should play well together. And for a good twenty minutes, the pic coalesces nicely, making for a reasonably creepy cop thriller that gets by on novelty alone. But the screenplay – co-written by Derrickson – quickly betrays its director, sharply pulling the film back toward shopworn ghost story tropes. The whole thing immediately crumbles, devolving into a limp fusion of clichés from both genres.

Eric Bana (“Munich”) leads as New York City cop Ralph Sarchie, while a woefully miscast Joel McHale (TV’s “Community”) supports as his partner. As the duo investigate eerie, inexplicable happenings in a poorly lit Bronx Zoo, Derrickson demonstrates a solid command of atmosphere and tension. The story gets really silly, really fast, but the filmmaker and his cast are clearly all-in on the material and it shows. The first act is surprisingly nimble, without showing the kind of narrative fatigue that so often sinks both cop movies and horror flicks.

It’s too bad, then, that the script takes an unnecessary flying leap into demonic possession territory, giving an ill-equipped Edgar Ramirez (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) the unenviable task of holding down the backend of the story. He plays Father Mendoza, a priest with a talent for disposing of demonic presences, and, even more frighteningly, over-explaining everything via unsolicited monologue. The character plays like a fifth generation photocopy of Max Van Sydow’s character from “The Exorcist,” and all the goodwill built up by an interesting first act is sapped every time Ramirez opens his mouth. The character eventually sucks the pic dry of all intrigue.

Rounding out the main cast are Olivia Munn (“Magic Mike”) – a non-factor as Sarchie’s wife, given little more to do than react to her husband’s understandably morose demeanor – and Sean Harris (“Prometheus”), the cast’s lone bright spot. As the lead possessee, Harris is marvelously scary as an ex-soldier turned vacant shell of a man, consumed by an evil spirit that’s out to do… something. It’s never clear what the demon’s endgame is, but Harris is great in the part, doing all he can to make a less-than-scary screenplay at least a touch unsettling.

Apart from the solid direction that carries act one, the film is something of a wreck, stacked with juvenile creative choices. For example, the film’s lone black character is seemingly only hand to deliver a few “Oh, hell no!” type exclamations, none of which are funny, all of which are vaguely offensive. Moreover, the pic uses a handful of songs by 60s rock band “The Doors” as part of its storyline, ostensibly because of singer Jim Morrison’s loose connection to the occult. It’s more stupid than it is reprehensible, but it’s the kind of creative liberty that should raise some eyebrows. Framing the work of another artist for the purpose of a fictional story (more on that in a moment) is creative thin ice, and it’s a perfect example of the film’s wrongheaded style-over-substance approach.

“Deliver Us From Evil” is bold, if only when it comes to lying to moviegoers. What’s been marketed as “inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant” ends with text noting that the film is “a work of fiction – any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” As in, “Remember when we told you that this was a true story? Yeah, could you just forget we said that? Thanks for your money, though!” Audiences will be hard-pressed to buy the pic’s preposterous story in the first place, but it’s baffling that it doesn’t even have the constitution to stick to its own lies.

So, what begins promisingly enough ends up a gratuitously violent, underwritten, depressing scrap heap of a movie that aims for two audiences and misses both. Scott Derrickson’s recent hiring by Disney’s Marvel Studios to helm their forthcoming “Doctor Strange” movie could still prove a masterstroke, provided that he’s limited to directorial duties. But “Deliver Us From Evil” is a definite cause for concern among comic book fans. More interestingly, the film continues producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s creative losing streak, one that appears to be snowballing with no end in sight.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 2, 2014
Studio: Screen Gems (Sony)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriter: Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman
Starring: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale
MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence, grisly images, terror throughout, and language)