Thursday, December 04, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Deliver Us from Evil (2014)

Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil (2014) -- a  big-budgeted, half-baked police procedural horror film -- is all the evidence you need that much of the genre’s energy, excitement, and originality these days comes from indie, micro-budgeted filmmakers. 

With Deliver Us from Evil’s thirty million dollar price tag, a filmmaker might have made ten films like Jennifer Kent’s cerebral The Babadook (2014) or Leigh Janiak’s intimate Honeymoon (2014). 

But instead, we get this movie: a witless, lifeless, often incoherently packaged mass “product” with familiar jump scares and virtually no trace of imagination or inspiration whatsoever.

Derrickson is a skilled filmmaker, and his previous films evidence great talent. I’m a big supporter of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), for example, and Sinister (2012) had moments of raw, diabolical power.

Derrickson’s next project is the Marvel film, Doctor Strange (2016) so let’s hope Deliver Us from Evil represents a temporary aberration from the director’s typical good work.

The central problem with Deliver us From Evil is that everything about it feels old and off-the-shelf.  

Movies of this type were in vogue in the 1990s -- at least twenty years ago -- when the horror film was experiencing an identity crisis of sorts.

Specifically, the form was struggling to move into the homogenized “A” studio list -- or the mainstream -- meaning that it had to front famous actors, and appeal to a wider demographic base.  Invariably this concern meant coupling horror with another genre: the crime movie, and subtracting many of the genre’s most imaginative or fantastic touches.

In short, you’ve seen this story before, many times, when it was called The First Power (1990), Fallen (1998), and End of Days (1999).

Nothing that occurs in this film is fresh, or is orchestrated in such a way as to make the leftover material feel fresh. Even some of the filmmaking basics -- including continuity -- are botched here.

Eric Bana does his stony best with the thin gruel he is provided here as Officer Sarchie, a lapsed Catholic cop who learns the error of his ways and spiritually re-enlists, teaming with a progressive (and smoldering…) young priest, played by Edgar Ramirez.

But even Bana’s stolid, dependable presence can’t deliver this movie from a terminal case of mediocrity.

“You know, when your radar goes off, you usually end up in stitches…”

In 2010, a trio of American soldiers in Iraq pursue insurgents into a subterranean lair. There, they find a strange altar, and encounter something…evil.

In 2013, Officer Sarchie (Bana) of the LAPD and his partner Butler (Joel McHale) begin responding to several strange incidences in the city involving those returned vets. Sarchie, in particular, is troubled by the cases, which cause his cop “radar” to go off.

After Sarchie apprehends a woman at the zoo who threw her baby into the lion exhibit, he is met by a Castilian priest, Ramirez (Mendoza), who reports to him that the crimes he is seeing in the city are spiritual in nature.  Sarchie rejects this explanation, at least at first.

Meanwhile, a malevolent force seems to zero in Sarchie’s family…

“I renounce all evil.”

Police-procedural horror films can be problematic for several reasons, but none more so than the fact that the main characters involved often feel like clichés.

Virtually all films of this type feature a handsome hero cop who flouts the rules to get the job done, and is gifted with an insight the others lack.

The role has been played by everyone from Denzel Washington to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bana plays Sarchie here, a man equipped with a “radar” that senses evil.  Bana is hunky and wholesome as Sarchie, but the character lacks any quality that would meaningfully distinguish him, or make him memorable. I presume that the real Sarchie -- who wrote best-settling accounts of his cases -- is a far more colorful and intriguing personality than what the screenwriters conjure here.

In the police procedural horror film, the hero cop character is frequently accompanied by a comic-relief partner who is loyal and funny (or at least, wise-cracker-ish)…and who likely won’t survive the picture, thus providing an excuse for the hero’s righteous vengeance.

Joel McHale essays that role in this film, following in the footsteps of John Goodman (Fallen), and Kevin Pollak (End of Days), to name just two talents who have played this utterly thankless role.

And speaking of Fallen, that movie suggested a demon’s favorite song was the Rolling Stones’ “Time is on my Side.” (1964). The demon in that film could also switch bodies but he kept humming, whistling and singing that trademark tune so you knew he was nearby. The demon in Deliver us from Evil, however, prefers the catalog of the Doors, because the band’s name means “portal,” and demons come through portals, you see. 

But the work of the Doors is put to roughly the same use in Deliver us from Evil that the Stones’ tune was put to in Fallen.  Same song, different band.  And that, my friend, could be this movie’s epitaph. It’s a cover version of a horror movie you’ve seen at least half-a-dozen times.

In most of these police procedural films, the villain is supernatural in nature, and the detective’s family is, inevitably, threatened by that evil. It happened to George C. Scott and his family (in the vastly superior Exorcist III [1990]) and it happens to Sarchie and his brood here.  Only in this case, the involvement of the family feels rote, like the screenwriters were rigorously following a blueprint.

Gee, we need to keep Sarchie emotionally involved through the final act…let’s have the demon capture (but not kill) his family.

Thus, in this film, it’s all about the recipe for making the sausages, and getting from point A to point B to point C.  That observation may be true of all films, in a sense, but the sausage-making is woefully transparent and familiar here, and that’s disappointing. 

What I appreciated so much about The Exorcism of Emily Rose was that it found a way to handle possession in an original and thought-provoking fashion, becoming a weird (but successful) fusion of legal drama and horror film.  Deliver us From Evil could have used some of that same sense of innovation and imagination.

Although the film features some atmospheric second-unit footage of NYC at night, thus creating a sense of a modern Babel or Sodom and Gomorrah, other technical aspects of Deliver us from Evil are shockingly slipshod. For instance, one early scene sees Sarchie going to a house to stop a domestic disturbance -- his radar has pinged -- and his wrist is cut open and badly bloodied by a perp.  Sarchie then gets tended to by an EMT.

But the very next scene in the movie involves him pursuing another case at the Bronx Zoo, and his arm wound is gone, miraculously healed.

Then he goes back home to his wife and -- lo and behold -- the wound is back.

This whole portion of the film feels incoherent. Sadly, Deliver us from Evil looks to have been heavily reworked in post-production, which is a sign either of filmmaking by committee or a dramatic re-think of the story late in the game.

Deliver us from Evil also attempts to pad out its running time with the sort of cheap horror “thrill” that I despise and resent. In particular, something weird occurs that can’t easily be dismissed, and yet it is easily dismissed by the characters, or at least left unreported.  Here, for example, the water in Sarchie’s aquarium boils.  Weird, right?

Wouldn’t you mention it to your wife? Or your partner? Or your ethnic, liberal priest buddy?

What’s so bad about the incidents like this in the film is that they are not motivated by any concrete power of the villain.  If the demon is in a human body (and not present near the boiling aquarium…) how did he accomplish this trick? 

And if the demon can accomplish such tricks from a long distance, why does he need a human body to possess in the first place? 

Deliver us from Evil is pocked with little moments like that, including a roly-poly plush owl that menaces a little girl.

But these amorphous terrors have almost no relation to the rest of the story, which concerns a group of Iraq vets who are possessed.  These moments exist in the film only to keep you from nodding off, and to create the impression that something is happening in the flaccid narrative when, in fact, nothing is happening at all.

The film is also woefully simple-minded, at least in terms of theme. Sarchie outgrew his beliefs in Catholicism and for good reason, based on his back-story. But the movie ends with him back in the fold, having his newborn child baptized.

The whole movie has thus been about this man going back to the belief system he rejected, all because of the “fear” this case created. 

So the movie comes down to what is, essentially, a fear-mongering Sunday school lecture:

Don’t leave the Church, or the Devil will get you and your family.

P.S. Baptize your children.

It takes the movie an interminable 118 minutes to get to this not terribly deep point.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Deliver us From Evil is that a formulaic, packaged entertainment like this can still get green-lit, and funded to the tune of thirty million dollars.

I’ve seen a lot of horror movies in 2014, and I can’t think of one that I have liked less than this one.

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