Ever since The Exorcist blew everyone’s pants off way back in 1973, filmmakers have been trying to recapture the wonderfully disturbing “possession story” magic that William Friedkin cooked up. Several decent films have found new angles and avenues for this occult material, and a whole lot more simply steal the most basic components and then vanish without a trace. Because while “copycatting” is boring, a well-intentioned, well-crafted homage is not. Even if it is sorta comfortably familiar.
Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil is not only an obvious love letter to The Exorcist (and films like it), but it’s also an admirably old-fashioned film noir story combined with a standard yet efficient police story procedural. Whether or not these three story types congeal into one cohesive whole is up to the individual viewer, but speaking only as one genre fan who likes the same 1970s films that Derrickson and co-writer Paul Boardman do, I say there are plenty of appealing ingredients on display here.
In a nutshell, Deliver Us from Evil is about a NYC cop who (reluctantly) teams up with a strange priest when he discovers that a series of horrific crimes are related to, you guessed it, demonic possession. With that simple plot synopsis out of the way, let’s break the movie down into three handy slices.
Film Noir: Eric Bana is a tough and over-confident cop who has a deep, dark secret, but gradually comes to realize that he’s dealing with forces way out of his league. It’s always raining, it’s usually night, most of the characters are prickly, and cinematographer Scott Kevan is plainly having some noir-style fun with light and shadows. If some of the early character development between Bana and his devoted wife (an excellent Olivia Munn) is a bit too familiar (wife, to husband: “Even when you’re here you’re not here!”), the screenplay also delivers some unexpectedly clever dialogue and ideas that, well, are best not to spoil in a review.
Police Procedural: For a grim genre amalgam that runs about 118 minutes (with end credits), Deliver Us from Evil manages to move at an appreciably brisk clip. Aside from a large portion of Act III (more on that in a minute), editor Jason Hellmann keeps Sarchie’s (Bana) story the focus of the attention. This movie might be about ten minutes longer than it really needs to be, but at its best sections there’s a quiet sense of energy that helps a whole lot. And if Edgar Ramirez (as a priest who’s not afraid of exorcising) is asked to deliver a few too many expository moments, he also manages to achieve a legitimately cool (even weird) chemistry with Bana by the time we delve into…
The Horror Movie: It’d be unwise to call Deliver Us from Evil a full-bore, non-stop horror-fest, because it isn’t one, and horror geeks hate being tricked like that. But if we’re putting aside the noir angle and the cop story hook, well, there’s a lot here for the horror fans to get behind. From Christopher Young’s (typically) awesome score to a series of obvious but fun “jump” scares, plus a few set pieces and practical effects splatter that are just plain old creepy (zoo and alleys and tenements, oh my!), the “horror portion” of Deliver Us from Evil acquits itself quite well. (The rule of “jump scares” is simple: if a character in the film is frightened by a furious kitty, that’s fair. If the furious kitty scares only the viewer, that’s lame. My rule.)
Sort of an odd film to open on the Fourth of July weekend, Deliver Us from Evil is far from a perfect marriage of cop story, character study, and occult thriller, but it seems pretty obvious that the filmmakers admire what they’re emulating here, and its hard to not play along with the grim, gritty fun — plus Joel McHale is on hand as a sidekick cop, and he’s a whole lot of fun. Had to throw that in there.
P.S. I should mention that Scott Derrickson is actually a good friend of mine. Just for the record. He gave me full permission to dislike the movie if I felt like it.
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