Horror films and I have had a pretty muddy relationship over the years. When I was young, I cowered at even the slightest sight of something grisly. In fact, I would often run out of the theater if a trailer for something even remotely creepy would play. However, one day, that fear just switched off. I started to venture into these films, and I found that very few actually had an effect on me. Don’t take that as a dismissal. I love certain horror flicks (The Shining being my favorite), but a lot of them fall into the same trappings, without delivering anything in return. However, in the past couple years, two great films have rekindled my love for the genre. The first was James Wan’s The Conjuring, the first movie to make ghosts genuinely terrifying using old school suspense techniques, and the second was Sinister, an ingeniously twisted little film dealing with the clash between a cynical of a true crime writer, and a malevolent spirit living within old Super 8 films. Why did you need to know all that? Well, the director of Sinister, Scott Derrickson, is the one who has…’delivered’ this film to us.
Deliver Us From Evil centers on Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), a New York city beat cop and his partner Butler (Joel McHale) as they delve into the world of the paranormal after receiving a series of mysterious and interconnected calls all centering around people who have been horrifically possessed in some way. This is hard for Sarchie, who despite being raised Catholic has become utterly skeptical of the existence of God, to believe at first. However, as he dives further into the case and ultimately teams up with Mendoza (Edgar Ramierz) a priest who has previously helped one of the victims of the possession, he starts to realize just how misguided his worldview really is.
Well…here I am in a familiar predicament once again. While Deliver Us From Evil seems to have been mangled by critics, so far only managing a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing, I found it to be an engrossing, tense time at the movies. Yes, there are quite a few problems here, but compared to the average horror fare, this movie actually has a great deal more to offer then it may seem.
The atmosphere and tone here are just perfect. Derrickson sets as much of the film as he can in the rainy evenings of New York, giving the whole affair a very effective film noir look. This is coupled with some really effective set-ups, with the use of some near-masterful suspense techniques. This all balances nicely with the story, a welcome mix of a police procedural and a supernatural thriller. Even that is selling it a little short though, because there’s actually quite a bit going for this on a character level too. The writing by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman is for the most part really sharp. Unlike most horror films, where most of the dialogue is expository, we are treated to quite a few very interesting psychological and spiritual discussions to go along with our scares, especially one Bana and Ramierz team up. Even with all that, there’s also a nice balance of humor, mostly courtesy of McHale, that is genuinely funny and expunges all of the self seriousness that those other bits could have exuded otherwise.
The performances here are also very strong. I’ve always found Eric Bana to be an immensely underrated actor and here he proves just why he should have been a leading man ages ago. He strikes a perfect balance between the engaging everyman persona audiences love in these films, and the tortured man we ultimately learn about. McHale provides welcome and genuinely funny comic relief, and Olivia Munn gives the first believable performance I’ve seen from her as Bana’s wife. The real standout here though is Ramierz. Never again should this guy be relegated to the meaningless side roles he’s had to suffer through in Wrath of the Titans and The Bourne Ultimatum. He’s not only endlessly charismatic, but his performance is so soulful that he manages to immerse us in what is by far the silliest material in the film, and makes it feel completely palpable. His character is constantly straddling his fear, and his purpose, and it’s great fun to watch Ramierz play with all of this. I look forward to seeing this guy again (perhaps as Doctor Strange?..make it happen Derrickson)
What really brings this film down from being a great film (which it comes close to being) is it’s repetitive nature. While I thought that nearly all of the set-ups here were wonderfully directed (despite some slightly unnecessary shaky-cam), they are all pretty similar. Bana and company enter a dark room, look around, hear noises, wave lights around, and then….JUMP SCARE. This film just might set the record for jump scares, and while a few of them are rather effective, I wish it had spent more time milking the creepy imagery (which comes in abundance) for all it’s worth. The climax is also pretty cliched. Seriously, how many horror films these days have to end in an exorcism? Apparently every single one. They’re all the same, and frankly, they’re getting to be rather silly.
While the main leg of the story is really well written, the side elements are pretty weak. While I thought Munn gave a good performance, her character is pretty flat. There’s a lot of the typical family dynamics that occur in too damn many of these cop films. You’ll hear the question “why aren’t you home more?” more times then you’re willing to tolerate. This throws the momentum of the movie right off track.
I found Deliver Us From Evil to be a massively enjoyable summer horror movie. Sure, it sometimes feels very old hat, but it navigates through that with a surprisingly effective grasp of character and wonderful performances. It didn’t really scare me personally, but judging by my jam packed audience’s reaction, it could very well rattle you. It’s a movie that delivers all of the goods, while still providing a little more to chew on. After this, I’m thrilled that Derrickson is the guy directing Doctor Strange, but Marvel, you’d better be ready to get a few complains from parents with traumatized children.