Despite a personal, undying love for horror, my interest in Deliver Us From Evil piqued after hearing that Scott Derrickson’s tale of possessions and demons would be based on personal accounts from Sargent Ralph Sarchie’s own NYPD experiences – a real horror story happening right under our noses in New York City. As a New Yorker, I see terrifying images each day, from violent bums to rats the size of Volkswagen Beetles, but to imagine actual exorcisms going down in some dingy apartment basement, or worse, in the room right next to mine? You’d assume paranormal horror in New York City couldn’t work because of the massive population, but Derrickson and Sarchie beg to differ, attempting to prove that even seedy NYC streets become hellish nightmares once the occult is introduced.
Eric Bana plays NYPD officer Ralph Sarchie, a special operations unit member about to experience the wildest, most dangerous case of his career. Accompanied by his partner Officer Butler (Joel McHale), the two become entangled in a spiritual tussle after responding to what appears to be a simple domestic disturbance. After digging around and uncovering some disturbing new evidence, Sarchie turns to Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) as religious backup for what could possibly be an old fashioned exorcism case. No police experience could have trained Sarchie for the horrors he uncovers, but Mendoza does his best to prepare him for the unexplainable – and bizarre.
Derrickson’s biggest task this time around becomes balancing fantasy and truth, because while The Exorcism Of Emily Rose could be portrayed as an exorcism story or case of mishandled information, Deliver Us From Evil never really grants a chance for opposing views. Established early on are notions that prove Sarchie’s story would be greatly embellished, but Deliver Us From Evil could have dropped its “Based On A True Story” claim and been a straight Satanic horror piece. The problem is, we never really can tell what remains verbatim from Sarchie’s accounts, and what the filmmakers bolster with Hollywood magic to heighten scares or drama. I mean, did no one else witness a priest and a cop performing an exorcism right in a precinct interrogation room and go public?
While we’re not sifting the facts from fluff, Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman provide an adequate script that hones in on the meatier bits of Sarchie’s novel, but some annoying holes bounce around as Bana battles forces from beyond. Discovered hieroglyphs play a part in all the demonic overtaking, as we see its creations in numerous trailers, yet as Sarchie himself becomes acquainted with the supposed cursed scribblings, he remains nothing but an onlooker. There are explanations about a gate to the underworld, letting evil spirits enter our world and so forth, but the build-up lacks proper expansion while the climatic summation feels wastefully rushed – a miscalculation in pacing. Moments of unfocused additions make Sarchie’s family life (wife Oliva Munn and child Lulu Wilson) a recurring afterthought, as Munn barely factors into Deliver Us From Evil, while NYPD protocol never applies to the renegade mavericks who are Officers Sarchie and Butler. But hey, the action and intensity are there, so at least emotional downfalls are picked up by higher moments of horror-geared excitement.
Sarchie’s personal Tales From The Crypt episode comes to life quite well as far as the horror is concerned, as Derrickson hits a stride akin to his bone-chilling hit from 2012, Sinister. From the very opening shot, Deliver Us From Evil shows his ability to capture a sprawling Iraqi desert on a MASSIVE scale, tracking gigantic sand mountains in a swirling bit of natural beauty. Transitioning to NYC’s Bronx slums, Derrickson also shows a skillful manipulation of light and darkness, as tenser moments are of course only seen through the glow of a flashlight – a typical horror maneuver. But, unlike more bumbling genre movies, Derrickson respects the blueish tinted darkness and doesn’t cheaply use quick panning jumps – well, for the most part. C’mon, can any horror director resist a jolting night-vision jump scare?! But, more than most, Derrickson respects his audience by evolving tension into white-knuckled terror, and for that we can only thank him.
When envisioning Bronx NYPD officers, Australian Eric Bana and The Soup host Joel McHale don’t immediately come to mind, but Bana brandishes his best Italian-American accent for the role of Ralph Sarchie while McHale embodies his cheeky sidekick. Bana brings a troubled masculinity to his character, one that justly fits a skeptical lawman, but McHale struggles as his daytime-cop-drama buddy who never finds a plausible realm to be anything but a cliched joke after one of Sarchie’s stern-faced claims. McHale’s performance isn’t flawed, and watching his out of character knife-play becomes a surprising bit of fun, but Butler is never established as anything more than supporting yucks.
Édgar Ramírez – playing a badass hand of god – could be Derrickson’s most curious creation, as a certain level of ridiculousness adds a perplexing, yet endearing, quality to the leather-wearing man of cloth. A habitual sinner finding salvation in God’s forgiveness, all we hear about is how Mendoza repeatedly defied better judgement in favor of the Devil’s playground, yet in an attempt to highlight Catholicism’s absolving of sins and belief of redemption, the renegade exorcist now preaches his lord’s name – while drinking you under the table. One might have a hard time stomaching Mendoza as a saintly savior, but Ramírez slowly becomes the most balanced, and commanding character that Deliver Us From Evil has to offer.
Derrickson has shown a love for dissecting religion in relation to horror in many of his previous films, and a New York City exorcism story is no different. As I just previously mentioned, this time around he puts a strong emphasis on Sarchie’s decision to ignore God thanks to a brutal break-in he was forced to stop as a child, combated by Mendoza’s “all is forgiven” mantra. But where The Exorcism Of Emily Rose remained contained and rural while walking us through Emily’s possession, these demons are true monsters. Vile, corroded husks of what used to be humans, these demonic characters are feral murderers – something Hollywood dreams up versus grounded “reality.” Sure, none of us can attest to Sarchie’s claims, and actress Olivia Horton brings a horrifying demon-woman to life, but it’s hard to accept such cross-burning as fact.
Derrickson continues to develop into an instinctively strong filmmaker, looking no further than Sarchie and Mendoza’s climactic exorcism featuring blown-out windows and a chaotic battle with true evil, but Deliver Us From Evil struggles to channel that same tenacity through storytelling. The dramatic “distant father” pieces don’t feel as weighty as they should, embodying more of a Hallmark staple, but an astute eye for horror makes up for Sarchie’s neglectful home behavior before spiralling into a sappy melodrama. There is fear to be found, and screams to be yelled, but beyond being ably crafted mainstream horror fodder, the value of Sarchie’s story stumbles along clumsily at times. At least the good outweighs the dull, making New York City THAT much more unnerving a locale to wander during the midnight hours. Now I have to avoid flaming hobos AND possessed civilians?!
The sins of Deliver Us From Evil are somewhat forgiven once Derrickson hits full stride and finds a proper demonic story waiting to break free.