The hokey and derivative exorcism thriller Deliver Us From Evil commences with one of those opening boasts of veracity, designed to send preemptive chills down the spines of the superstitious and the gullible. This time, the disclaimer seems less a hook than a defense mechanism: Complain that the film resembles dozens of other likeminded scare-fests, and those involved might refer you to the “true stories” that “inspired” it. Said stories were pulled from the pages of Beware The Night, a 2001 memoir by Ralph Sarchie, who transitioned from fighting “secondary evil” as an NYPD detective to helping combat “primary evil” as a demonologist. Either Sarchie’s real-life experiences conformed to the hoariest horror conventions, or the creative time behind Deliver Us From Evil has taken a loose, liberal approach to adapting them. The fact that the movie is set in 2013—more than a dozen years after the last of the book’s events supposedly occurred—gives one a good idea of how important fidelity was to the producers.
Of course, as last summer’s similarly “fact-based” The Conjuring proved, it’s not necessary to believe a supernatural anecdote to be spooked by it. The real issue is that Deliver Us From Evil doesn’t even believe in its tropes, whose moldiness no veneer of “authenticity” can mask. The movie combines elements from both the exorcism and policier genres, meaning that the usual supernatural scare tactics—creepy Latin incantations, possessed toys, manipulated voices—now come with a side of buddy-cop banter. Eric Bana, sporting a glazed stare and shaky Bronx accent, plays Sarchie, a lawman haunted by the sickening crimes he investigates. He’s got a family he neglects (“Even when you’re here you’re not here,” complains wife Olivia Munn) and a traumatic backstory to which he cryptically alludes. He also has a switchblade-twirling, hothead partner played by Joel McHale, spouting quips that could have been pulled from a Community parody of cop movies.
Sarchie and his partner spend most of Deliver Us From Evil poking around in fetid, vermin-infested apartment complexes, their flashlight beams illuminating ominously scrawled messages and sacrificed house pets. Gradually, a mystery comes together—one involving veterans of the war in Iraq, a woman who throws her child into the lions’ pen at the Bronx Zoo, a hooded painter, and the repeated appearance of Jim Morrison lyrics. Helping Sarchie sort the mumbo from the jumbo is Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), a Catholic priest who specializes in the paranormal. A recovering drug addict who drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney, and eyeballs the women he can’t date, Mendoza is a complete invention of the screenwriters, and it shows. His first function is as an exposition machine, on hand to debrief the characters (and audience) on all unholy matters. His second function is as another mismatched partner for Sarchie, the Mulder to his Scully. Ramírez tackles the role with the paycheck-cashing boredom it deserves.
Deliver Us From Evil flirts with an interesting subtext, briefly suggesting that trauma is the real malevolent spirit that possesses people—especially cops and soldiers, who witness atrocities they can’t un-witness; the darkness of their work creeping inside of them. But the film turns out to be more concerned with generic concepts of good versus evil, the usual Biblical battle these movies reenact, one demonic expulsion at a time. In truth, the familiarity of the material wouldn’t matter so much if any of it was staged with panache. Scott Derrickson, who made the infinitely scarier and more accomplished Sinister, seems to have lost his feel for the genre. He drenches just about every scene in an ugly, inky darkness. Far from giving the movie a menacing atmosphere, these sprawling shadows simply obscure spaces beyond recognition. The action scenes are clumsily filmed and choppily edited; one botched sequence involving Sarchie’s dangerous encounter with a jungle cat fails to even convincingly place Bana and the animal in the same frame together. Inevitably, the film reaches the exorcism portion of the evening, and it’s so by the book—the splitting flesh, the shattering windows, the guttural threats—that even the most deeply devout of viewers may find their minds wandering to earlier, better versions of the scene they’re watching. Deliver us from such clichés, Hollywood.