Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil wants so badly to be a different kind of horror movie, and there are several moments when it seems as though it might succeed. Not many movies like this would start with a scene featuring a group of soldiers fighting in Iraq, and a slightly later sequence in the Bronx Zoo feels particularly unique. Horror films have typically been bound to claustrophobic, dimly-lit indoor spaces, but in the first act of Deliver Us From Evil, Derrickson makes a concerted effort to bring the darkness out into the open. If the film stuck to these concepts, it might have had something. Eventually, it turns into a below-average cop story with intermittently effective horror elements. Instead of hunting serial killers, the cops in Deliver Us From Evil are doing battle with the devil, and that doesn’t turn out to be quite as interesting as it may sound.
These two competing genres are represented by our heroes Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), an NYPD cop, and Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), a priest/exorcist. The former tosses aside any notion of God, and claims every act of evil he’s witnessed can be explained away by “human nature.” The latter, meanwhile, believes that many of the crimes committed over the course of the film are actually demonic in origin. Since this is a horror film titled Deliver Us From Evil, Mendoza’s take winds up being the correct one. Unfortunately, such inevitabilities do not save us from a scene in which Sarchie and Mendoza sit down at a bar and discuss their differing beliefs in groaningly literal fashion.
These also wind up being the only characters with anything of substance to do. Sarchie has a wife, played by Olivia Munn, who mostly exists to be concerned and disapproving until she finally needs his help at the end. The character of his daughter (Lulu Wilson) is a typical child in danger, and is around just so the film can fall back on the kinds of bump-in-the-night scares that we’ve seen in a million movies the last several years. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Deliver Us From Evil so frustrating. It has every opportunity to break free from the usual clichés, but it all too readily provides audiences with the predictable. Clichés can certainly be done well, with last year’s The Conjuring being a fine example. This quite simply does not reach that level.
That said, Derrickson has a good eye, and he’s able to give even the most familiar of scares some significant power. The problem is, for the most part, they don’t leave any lasting impact. There’s a difference between a well-done scare and something that is genuinely scary. A scare is akin to someone jumping out from behind a wall, you are startled, but then you go back to your life because you know there isn’t any danger. For a horror film to truly work, there needs to be an element that gets under your skin, as well as a few moments that stick in your mind for well after the film is done. In this case, such moments are in short supply.
There’s still something to be said for a film where the best-orchestrated sequence is one of the last. From the moment Mendoza is introduced, the audience knows that at some point he’s going to have to break out the exorcism gear. When it finally comes, it is set up well, and this climactic showdown between priest and devil is every bit as intense and urgent as Derrickson wants it to be. It’s an exorcism with real and immediate stakes, and even though it’s a familiar concept, this winds up being an effective take. It’s just a shame that most of what came before was so familiar, and the desperation of this climax is quickly undone by a rushed, too-easy resolution. It deploys the parachute when it should be going full speed ahead, and it speaks to the film’s general fear of straying too far from the norm. I suppose that was to be expected right from the start, when Deliver Us From Evil immediately claims to be based on real events. If past horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that whenever such proclamations are made, the audience is likely in store for something completely and utterly ordinary.