While the validity of the “true story” at the heart of Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil can be hotly debated and contested, the film itself is a masterful work of modern horror and one of a very small handful of scary movies in recent years to be unsettling and terrifying. A step above last year’s BOATS-themed and similarly scary The Conjuring, Deliver Us from Evil is also the rare kind of horror film that’s actually about something on a subtextual level and not filled with empty jump scares around every corner. Blending the best elements of exorcism narratives and police procedurals, the film contains a sustained energy and focus that delivers a precise clinic in showing how films in this genre should be made. It might not make the end of the year best list, but it has destroyed everything else that it’s in competition with.
South Bronx detective Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his adrenaline junkie partner Butler (Joel McHale) are investigating a series of cases they can’t seem to solve or explain involving a trio of Iraq war veterans and their families who have been demonstrating violent behavior. One committed suicide, another seemingly stalks the night somewhat aimlessly, and the wife of one decided to throw her newborn child into a moat around the lion enclosure at the Bronx Zoo. Himself a lapsed catholic, Ralph begins to listen to the advice of a less than perfect Jesuit priest (Edgar Ramirez) who insists that these men brought something demonic back with them from their deployment overseas.
What makes Derrickson’s work here so interesting is that the demonic forces at work here are both literal and figurative. Unlike The Conjuring, which played its hand regarding demonology and the nature of God in the universe perfectly straight, Derrickson and long time co-writer and collaborator Paul Harris Boardman have also made a film that’s openly trying to create a dialogue about trauma. All of the men in this seedy, dark, and rainy New York borough have been deeply scarred by past events that have led them to this point. The literal demons of Deliver Us from Evil could just as easily be replaced by those that remain unseen and the film would lose none of its power. But like most exceptional genre efforts, this film finds ways of making the literal fantastical, unnerving, and in some ways admittedly easier to take amid all the gore and shocks on display. This is far more in line with the kinds of themes that William Friedkin employed to such great effect in The Exorcist or the sheer exhaustion of people in thankless, high pressure jobs that can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. Sure, Derrickson wants his audience to go on a thrill ride, and he includes some sly in-on-the-joke jump scares involving a plush owl and Ralph’s irrational hatred of cats, but he’s clearly more enthralled by making the audience realize why those stock moments can be so scary within the narrative. Jump scares work 100% of the time when they’re done effectively, and Derrickson certainly knows how to pull them off without seeming like he’s trying too hard to goose the audience. He’s a great craftsman, but an even better storyteller.
From the opening to the conclusion, Derrickson never backs down from a breakneck pace that makes two hours fly by in the blink of an eye. Getting a heck of an assist from cinematographer Scott Kevan (who delivers his best work to date with an eye for symmetry that would make Wes Anderson blush with delight), Derrickson portrays the South Bronx as a shady, bleak hell hole, but one that isn’t entirely beyond redemption. He’s taking a lot of cues unabashedly from the early works of Friedkin, Scorsese, and even a fair bit from David Fincher (it’s hard not to look at the torrential rains and McHale’s tattoos without seeing references to Seven), but he makes them work by never skimping on actually giving the audience something to chew on.
Horror movies have been considerably dumbed down in recent years, marred by some sort of misbegotten desire for self-reflexivity, and while Derrickson and Boardman have infused this adaptation Sarchie’s true crime source material Beware the Night with a considerable amount of welcome and gleefully dark gallows humour, they’re never precious about how they offer their audience catharsis from the shocks at hand. Everything gets handled quite seriously, from the priest’s dark, addiction fuelled past to Ralph’s inability to be a father, and the cast and crew understand fully that this kind of genre film respects the audience instead of just shovelling clichés upon them with little rhyme or reason.
Bana, working the best he can with such a thick accent, makes for a convincing and sympathetic everyman hero struggling with his job. Ramirez doesn’t have much to do until the halfway point, but he’s the heart in the middle of the darkness, a man who does his job almost like it’s his own last resort. Sean Harris gets some chilling moments as the primary villain of the piece, and Olivia Munn fares well as Sarchie’s wife in a role that would have been thankless in lesser hands. The real standout here is McHale, who straddles the line between comedic relief and total badass wonderfully. It’s the kind of role that Peter Berg probably would have played had this film been made a decade ago, but he brings a great deal of charm and tenacity to his buddy cop role here. He also looks damned credible in a knife fight, which is something I never thought I would say about someone who hosts The Soup and is best known for his work on TV’s Community. It’s a wonderfully against type role that still plays to McHale’s greatest strengths as an actor.
But the biggest quantum leap here has to be the one made by Derrickson who earns a big vote of confidence heading into his gig on Marvel’s Doctor Strange with his career best work here. Here he touched upon previous themes in his earlier films (a plot point involving camera footage from Iraq and themes of fatherly guilt harkens back to Sinister, and there’s the obvious theme of possession that drove the plot of The Exorcism of Emily Rose), but they feel decidedly on point, focused, and used as part of a greater whole.
Visually and aurally, the film stuns in every possible way despite most of the film taking place in the dark and shadows. Derrickson has an almost unparalleled gift when it comes to composing sequences that can lure a viewer into a false sense of confidence just by looking at them, and his use of lush soundscapes (including numerous cheeky references to The Doors) suggests a real student of the craft who’s finally looking to make a big jump in terms of audacity and scope of his material.
Admittedly, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Sinister or his reboot The Day the Earth Stood Still (Emily Rose is shockingly solid, and I have soft spots for Hellraiser: Inferno and his writing work on Urban Legends: Final Cut), but Deliver Us from Evil is the real deal. It’s scary, thoughtful, and ultimately pretty moving even if you can’t buy into the religious angle of the “true story.” It will give genre fans something they have been clamouring for quite some time: material that’s better than simplistic scares that treats them like equals and not a source of easy cash for the producers.