The horror genre is more than just gratuitous splatter fare, serial killers in the night or supernatural creatures that prey on humankind. At their core, these films reflect a deep fear of the unknown and unfamiliar that writers, filmmakers and artists turn into tales to which anyone can relate.
In “Deliver Us From Evil,” director Scott Derrickson taps into the “actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant” to explore this fear, producing a film that, while genuinely creepy at times, ultimately falls flat on its horror premise. It asks the question: How does one reconcile his or her disillusionment in believing in a higher power with a series of strange occurrences linked to an ancient evil?
The film centers on Sgt. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), who regularly interacts with the worst parts of humanity — he acts “with a heavy hand,” dealing with the murderers and drug dealers of the Bronx on a nightly basis. He has a wisecracking partner (Joel McHale) who pokes fun at his uncanny sense for danger — his “radar” — and a wife (Olivia Munn) and daughter whom he keeps at a distance because he is so disturbed by the dark things he deals with. He doesn’t believe in a higher power because, as he puts it, God didn’t stop a meth user from breaking into his family’s home when he was 12; he did, with a baseball bat.
Sarchie is the archetypal cop who describes the grisly occurrences he faces — like a mother who threw her child into the lion’s den at the Bronx Zoo or a man who willingly drank bleach and rotted away in a basement — as products of society’s refuse. As Sarchie investigates these events, he crosses paths with a hard-drinking, chain-smoking priest, Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who seems to know the sinister secret that ties them all together. Sarchie, who joins forces with Mendoza, must atone for past sins and acknowledge the existence of a higher power that is the pair’s only hope against a demonic foe.
At a little under two hours, “Deliver Us From Evil” takes its time in revealing its monster, leaving clues for the viewer that are not explained until later in the film. The opening scene, for example, in which a platoon of American soldiers in Iraq comes across an underground temple, seems out of place until Sarchie — and the audience — learns the significance of what was down there later in the film.
There are heart-stopping moments of terror and shock, such as when a stuffed owl moves on its own or when video footage is spliced with bloody images of death. Sarchie is plagued by auditory and visual hallucinations that also capture viewers, a credit to tropes of the horror genre that work: when people are scared or on edge, they will keep watching, even if through the gaps between fingers.
But awkward scenes of inappropriately placed humor and unnecessary action segments break the tension that is crucial to horror films — a viewer cannot be scared of a demon’s appearance during an exorcism that is followed with a “what the fuck…” from a one-off character. Horror thrives on the stress that it generates in the buildup to a big scare, and moments that elicit giggles from the audience remove that heightened stress.
In adapting Sarchie’s real-life encounters with the possessed, Derrickson seems confused over what kind of film he is making, which doesn’t help create the air of spookiness that supernatural horror films should have. “Deliver Us From Evil” can be a real horror show at points, but when it’s time for the monster to scare the daylights out of the audience, the screams are nowhere to be heard.
Youssef Shokry is the assistant arts editor. Contact him at email@example.com.