The opening title card reads “Inspired by actual accounts,” which is distinct from “Based on a true story” in that it reads closer to “Somebody of indeterminate credibility claims something like this happened but mostly we made it up.” Which is understandable given that we’re watching a movie where a guy spontaneously bleeds from injuries inflicted by an invisible crown of thorns and features several incidents that could prove libellous for the NYPD. The filmmakers need to cover their collective ass. They also need to imply that what we’re seeing could’ve happened, Satan is real, and when the going gets tough you want to find yourself an hunky ex-junky Latino priest. Those guys are hard-core.
Deliver Us From Evil takes place in 2013, a year in which New York apparently suffered constant brownouts and torrential downpours. Officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) gets a hunch one night—his partner calls this Sarchie’s “radar”—and accepts a call to investigate a domestic dispute involving a wife beater who acts like a rabid dog. The radar keeps going off over the ensuing nights and Sarchie winds up fending off large zoo animals, getting bitten by a lady who threw her kid in a ravine, witnessing an exploding corpse and befriending the aforementioned hunky ex-junky (Carlos star Édgar Ramírez), who gradually convinces Sarchie that his radar is really a God-given gift for sniffing evil and that he’ll need to confront his sinful past if he’s ever going to beat the Devil.
Sarchie is a real-life retired cop and demonologist. He co-founded the New York chapter of the New England Society of Psychic Research and has worked with the likes of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were themselves the subject of a horror movie, last year’s The Conjuring. To Bana’s credit, movie-Sarchie’s eventual conversion to belief in demonic possession is barely foreshadowed. The arc of Deliver Us From Evil, its story an amalgamation of events chronicled in Sarchie’s memoir Beware the Night, is given shape by Sarchie’s reluctant acceptance of his calling.
Which brings us to our director and co-scenarist Scott Derrickson, who I confess to finding somewhat fascinating. Following a wildly unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the haunted house movie Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil returns Derrickson, who was raised a Christian fundamentalist, to the thematic terrain of his feature debut The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a thriller-as-thesis statement exploring the mental illness versus demonic possession question and came out on the side of ambiguity and general tolerance of other people’s spiritual beliefs. That film, goofy as it was, works better than Deliver Us From Evil, which nosedives into overstatement and can’t resist a protracted operatic demon-outing climax that strains the “actual accounts” claim well past its breaking point.
Still, I feel friendly toward Evil. Derrickson’s a rare bird, both a true believer and a young director trying to navigate Hollywood—he’s said to be helming a Doctor Strange adaptation next. I think this film could have used more of the believer and less of the showman, but at least it keeps a sense of humour about itself, particularly with regards to its winking references to Poltergeist and Taxi Driver and a fun motif involving The Doors, whose music seems to follow Sarchie around. People are strange, just like the song says, so why can’t we have a morose Iraq vet-turned-house painter and lion whisperer who recites Latin and goes to work in the middle of the night made up like Alice Cooper?