Any film centered on demonology has an inherent responsibility for success: to make you, the jaded viewer, believe… or at least, to convince you to suspend your disbelief for just a few hours. Whether or not the film’s protagonist(s) are able to do so or not is dependent.
In many, like director Scott Derrickson’s own The Exorcism of Emily Rose, our main character is convinced of the Satanism at hand, desperately trying to get others to listen, while in others, like The Last Exorcism, our lead is one of the last to be convinced of the Devil’s works. Derrickson’s latest, Deliver Us From Evil, is one of the latter tales, in which our hero is slowly pushed to believe, bringing the audience along with him.
Ralph Sarchie (played here by Eric Bana) in real-life is a retired NYPD detective, and it’s his memoir upon which this film is based. Bana’s Sarchie strides through his cases, forcefully and professionally, though the grim realities of mankind’s capabilities begin to take a draining and stressful toll on him. Luckily, his cop partner and comic-relief machine, Butler (Joel McHale), keeps him balanced. Sarchie’s neglecting his family life, wife Olivia Munn and daughter, thanks to an overbearing schedule at his poisonous job – and that’s before the demon stuff starts.
It all starts at The Bronx Zoo, where a deranged woman has thrown her child into a moat near the lion exhibit. Sarchie and Butler arrive at the scene, and CSI: Night Zoo begins. Delightfully predictable-yet-effective zoo scares ensue, as bears roar and monkeys shriek in between carefully placed silences. Sarchie finds a spooky, hooded-man, painting over some cryptic text on a wall in the lion’s den, and the investigation begins. The elaborate plot in which a demonic force has found its way to the Big Apple begins.
A lengthy portion of the film does play out almost exactly like a well-constructed crime drama on primetime network television. Despite the occasional jump-scare or reference to The Man Downstairs, I was half expecting an ad for The Big Bang Theory to pop up on the bottom of the theater screen. It’s hard to say the initial mystery was solved, as it was more so investigated and easily understood given the evidence presented, but moving forward, the film returns to the scary exorcism movie that it wants to be. It’s around this time when Sarchie meets Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), an alternative priest who is able to convince Sarchie of the supernatural world over coffee.
Once the tension in the film has built to the point that it is clearly supposed to be scaring you, it’s very difficult to stick with it. Several plot devices designed to up the ante ultimately detract from any fear. For example, the film constantly plays on owl imagery, almost to the point of mockery. Additionally, to hear the same generic “children laughing” sound effect once is kind of fine, but to hear it on a loop is completely off-putting and causes it to lose its intended effect. And lastly, the pseudo-possessed men and women aren’t given consistent powers. At one moment, they’re clairvoyants wielding multiple powers of the Devil, and at the next they’re expertly knife-fighting McHale.
There are a few scenes in Deliver Us From Evil that work. Honestly, the idea of a scary zoo at night is pretty decent – it’s these kind of basic, human fears (wild animals at night!) that truly work – but so many of the others feel repetitive. It’s creepy when Sarchie’s daughter hears sounds under the floorboards and her toys start moving around, but searching an unlit room at night again and again loses anything resembling tension or fear.
The handful of slightly above-average moments in Deliver Us From Evil aren’t enough to make up for the rest of its lackluster structure. There are just no solid scares and no particularly original ideas. The film’s climax is drawn-out and far from satisfying, which is really just another way to describe the film as a whole.
The Upside: Sean Harris and Chris Coy totally embrace their possession
The Downside: You can find scarier content on prime-time television
On the Side: After Ralph Sarchie retired from the NYPD, he become a renowned demonologist, working alongside the Warrens who were depicted in The Conjuring.