Call me crazy, but “the actual accounts of NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie” (from which Deliver Us from Evil was purportedly derived) sound an awful lot like every other horror movie ever made. In Scott Derrickson’s latest film (he also directed Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose), we follow tough, cynical cop Sarchie (Eric Bana) as a series of increasingly creepy occurrences in the Bronx open his eyes to the fact that demons are real and that he needs to get good with God. Sarchie, we’re told, is known for his “radar” — a clairvoyant’s ability to sense when something is worth looking into. But he himself isn’t much of a believer in the supernatural. “I’ve seen horrible things, but nothing that can’t be explained by human nature,” he tells Jesuit priest Mendoza, played by Edgar Ramirez. “Then you haven’t seen true evil,” the priest replies.
Spoiler alert, but true evil turns out to be lurking around the corner. After Sarchie investigates several seemingly unconnected incidents — including one in which a woman tossed her infant into the lion’s den at the Bronx Zoo — he begins to realize that the events might be connected. Father Mendoza then enters the picture, and begins to make solemn pronouncements about “primary evil” and “secondary evil,” and playfully shames Sarchie for his abandonment of the church. “I guess I outgrew all that,” the tough cop reflects. “You outgrew God?” Mendoza inquires. Point, Jesuit priest.
There’s promise in these atmospheric early scenes, when Sarchie, alongside his partner (a surprisingly buff Joel McHale) and occasionally Mendoza, rushes bravely into unlit basements or looks down pitch-black corridors or leaps into a lion’s den at night. (It certainly helps that whatever sinister power is causing these people to do horrific things also makes the lights go out whenever it’s near.) There are animals galore: lions, bears, owls, fish, a screeching cat (of course), a mouse caught in a trap, and a big-ass dog that apparently likes to sit quietly in the darkness until juuust the right moment to start barking maniacally. Other typical elements abound, including a creepy music box, doors that close of their own will, and scratching noises under children’s beds. And a de rigueur climactic exorcism that looks like all the other exorcisms.
Of course, one man’s horror cliché is another’s horror tradition, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with a movie that relies on reliable scare tactics. (Horror movies are a kind of comfort food, after all.) Last year’s The Conjuring breathed new life into these old tropes by giving us victims we cared about, and by focusing as much on suspense as it did on scares. Its characters were afraid of the things they were seeing, and their fear was contagious — it leaped off the screen and contaminated us. Deliver Us From Evil isn’t nearly as successful. Oh, it’s dark, to be sure — there are plenty of scenes where you can barely make out what’s going on — but its characters feel more like mouthpieces and plot conveniences, and so the fear doesn’t grab us. There are some half-decent scares — mostly of the hey-wait-everything-suddenly-got-really-quiet-and-oh-my-God-what’s-THAT jump-shock kind — but little dread. And after a while, the film’s grim, desolate settings come off not so much as a landscape of moral squalor (as in Se7en), but as a tedious attempt to add gravity to a thoroughly generic horror tale.
But the film’s real problem is that it’s somehow both one-note and convoluted. The plot’s a tangle of backstory — it’s hard at times to keep track of which possessed-looking guy or gal did which awful thing — but none of it really matters, because the focus is not on the indistinct victims, but on Sarchie himself. (He does, of course, have a wife and child, and they do, of course, get involved, but it’s done in an almost offensively haphazard, box-checking way.) Yet even he feels like a device. Bana is a likable actor, but he doesn’t bring any vulnerability or transparency to the part; it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking anything at all. And so, we move from one bleak, bludgeoning setpiece to another. But with each loud noise, the film loses us more and more.