Deliver Us From Evil

August 2, 2014
Eric Bana in Deliver Us From Evil (2014)
Eric Bana in Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

Scott Derrickson, director of Deliver Us From Evil is obviously a film buff, as there is barely a scene in his hybrid horror/cop movie that won’t remind cinema-literate viewers of another scene in another film. The primary reference in this anthology of every fear and fancy that has taken up residence in the American psyche, is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), which was hailed in its day as the scariest film of all time. Then there is David Fincher’s chilling serial killer flick, Seven (1995). Along the way there are references to the demons and poltergeists familiar from the Amityville Horror (1979) to the Paranormal Activity series.

Even the two lead characters have an air of déjà vu: Eric Bana is Ralph Sarchie, a tough cop that neglects his wife and child because of his devotion to the force; while Édgar Ramírez is Mendoza, a flawed but dedicated priest, who atones for hs own sins by pitting himself against the forces of Satan.

Like The Exorcist it’s inevitable that Deliver Us From Evil is based on “true events”. There really is a Ralph Sarchie, a veteran cop who worked for 18 years in the South Bronx precinct and battled evil spirits in his spare time. The real Sarchie, now a full-time demonologist, has allegedly assisted with more than 20 exorcisms.

You may recall that The Exorcist begins with Max Von Sydow finding a small effigy of a demon in an archaeological dig in Iraq. Fast forward 35 years and Deliver Us From Evil begins with three American soldiers descending into a tomb in Iraq, where they encounter a mysterious presence. The difference, in a post-9/11, post-Gulf War world, is that the word “Iraq” carries a new set of disturbing connotations.

The root of all evil, it seems, is the Middle East – whether we are talking about terrorism or the supernatural. Soldiers come back from Iraq infected with dangerous Islamist ideas, like Damian Lewis in the Homeland series, or possessed by demons. Back in the States, the veterans are having a hard time adjusting to normal life. Sarchie and his sidekick, Butler (Joel McHale), intervene when they find one zombified member of the trio (Chris Coy) beating up his wife. Another will soon be found dead, while his wife – driven hopelessly insane – is intent on feeding her baby to the lions at the zoo. The driving force behind these crimes is the third veteran, Santino (Sean Harris), who goes around writing spells in Latin on any available wall. Beneath his hoodie he is lavishly tattooed with incantations.

As the violence and weirdness escalates Sarchie finds his private life being affected. His head is full of radio static and chattering voices, while an invisible force starts moving the furniture in his small daughter’s bedroom. Watching video footage of Santino, he has flashbacks to his own worst moment, when he beat a notorious paedophile to death.

Enter Father Mendoza, a handsome hispanic priest who works out like an athlete and drinks Scotch. He is on the case too, and gives Sarchie a lecture about ‘secondary and primary evil’. The latter is the dangerous inexplicable sort connected with supernatural forces. Sarchie is sceptical, but events will bring him around to Mendoza’s side. From here on it’s the NYPD vs. the forces of darkness.

It may sound like awful schlock, but the story moves at a fast pace, assisted by some very sharp editing. There is no shortage of violence and gore but Derrickson never overplays his hand. As with his previous film, Sinister (2012), he reveals a firm grasp of the dynamics of the horror film, a genre that attains maximum effectiveness through suggestion rather than shock. While shocks will always be a part of the formula, they cannot be done to death as they were in the amateurish Paranormal Activity 5, when every door opened onto something that went “Boo!”

Not only does the movie play on the popular chills generated by the supernatural, there are also anxieties about home invasion, child molesters, junkies, foreigners, the working classes – you name it. A leitmotif is the music of The Doors, which seems to be heard in all the wrong places. From a supernatural angle songs such as Break on Through to the Other Side or People are Strange do have certain connotations, not to mention Jim Morrison’s personal sympathy for the devil.

As a virtual scrapbook of the horror and cop genres, it’s amazing this film doesn’t collapse into parody. Muscular Christianity – indeed, Catholicism – is seen as the answer to Middle Eastern evil, but even this doesn’t turn the story into the usual Hollywood morality tale such as Man of Steel. Unlike the last incarnation of Superman, Ralph Sarchie is not the Messiah, just a regular cop with a job to do. Instead of blowing away the bad guys with a Magnum, he wields a mean crucifix.

Deliver Us From Evil
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Written by Scott Derrickson & Paul Harris Boardman, from a book by Ralph Sarchie & Lisa Collier Cool
Starring Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Joel McHale, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris
USA, rated MA 15+, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 2nd August, 2014.