The bible has long served as one of the great repositories of supernatural folklore in western culture. It raises its head again in Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil (2014), where a series of ominous ruminations about faith and the enduring battle between good and evil becomes curiously combined with the pseudo-spiritual music of The Doors. The director of 2012’s hit Sinister arrives well-equipped with an intuitive sense of genre-specific trickery, yet this heavily derivative psychological horror ultimately fails to add depth and character to a disappointing mélange of predictable jumps and scares. Though omitting the found footage formula this time around, stylistically Derrickson’s latest still lacks invention.
Deliver Us from Evil is keen to remind us that it’s based on Beware the Night, the autobiography of former NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie. However, the key to a good horror film is not to convince us of its authenticity, but for it to prey on our own legitimate, innate fears. We’re first exposed to loving family man and tough-talking detective Sarchie (Eric Bana) as he cradles the corpse of a baby he finds in a skip. He’s drenched in soaking rain, because Derrickson’s vision of New York is one of a city shadowed in perpetual darkness, where evil has permeated every nook and cranny. He’s also equipped with a peculiar intuition for sniffing out crime. His buddy and partner (Joel McHale) even describes it as his “radar”. It’s an ability that results in the pair taking a fateful domestic disturbance call all the way across town.
What should have been a simple call-out turns into a fistfight with a disturbed Iraq war veteran and leads them down a sinister route involving infanticide, a possessed decorating company and eventually to an ex-drug addict turned catholic priest called Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez). Sarchie must unite with demonology expert Mendoza if he’s to “break on through (to the other side)” and save the city, while at the same time exorcising his own demons and misconceptions. Whether or not Derrickson is playing the above synopsis for laughs is unclear. The use of The Doors’ lyrics as a narrative signpost would suggest yes, yet the film is so saturated by a foreboding atmosphere of fear that it’s hard to decipher whether the hilarity of Bana’s two-dimensional detective and his knife-wielding subordinate is intentional or just lazy character development. In fairness, Derrickson does manage to maintain a sustained level of tension throughout, albeit primarily through the archaic practice of placing an innocent wife and child in the path of demonic malevolence.
Whilst horror films can, and often are, judged primarily on their scares, no amount of creepy monsters under the bed can mask the inadequacies of this film’s ludicrous premise and a script that’s both convoluted and starved of ideas. It culminates in a rather exhausting experience and, by the time the film reaches its climax, we the audience have all but given up the ghost. Derrickson flirts with some interesting ideas, briefly suggesting that trauma is the real malevolent spirit at play, yet by focusing on the generic battle between good versus evil, his fourth feature feels derivative amalgamation of exorcism chills and buddy cop thrills. Nothing is understated and the carefully orchestrated sense of fear quickly descends into farce. Ultimately, Deliver Us from Evil’s aggressive deployment of horror clichés suggests that, until someone discovers an inventive ways to explore the corruption of the soul in a world full of genuine evil, it’s time to call a moratorium on this type of possession narrative.