The key thing to remember when you’re going into this “inspired by true events” demonic possession/cop thriller flick is that, while it does get suspenseful and very unnerving, Deliver Us From Evil (DUFE) is not so much scary as it is ... icky.
From its squashed cockroaches to eviscerated cats, grimy alleyways to apartments best described politely as housekeeping disasters, bloated fly-engorged corpses to grotesquely mangled bodies, DUFE could just call itself The Yeuks-orcist and that would not be inappropriate.
Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, and the really disturbing Sinister) does a terrific job of creating an atmosphere of dread, mostly delivering good pay-offs. He is, however, unable to completely avoid falling back on old-school jump scares and a couple of unfortunately cheesy moments (a blood-drenched possession victim crawling over a victim’s body with a bunch of keys in her mouth is... more laughable than scary).
Overall, though, the result is a tense and gritty entry in the crime-horror sub-genre (remember Denzel in Fallen?) that makes an earnest effort to be as weighty in its spirituality and philosophising as it is in the shock-and-gore department.
Like all good exorcism movies, this one starts in the desert: Iraq in 2010, where three US soldiers make a discovery that... won’t be revealed to us till much later in the film. Cut to the Bronx in New York City a few years later, where NYPD Special Operations Sergeant Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his partner Butler (Community’s Joel McHale as a bad@$$ cop who prefers knife fights to beatdowns) encounter one of them in rather violent circumstances.
Before you can say “that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter”, Sarchie is neck deep in mystery. Subsequent cases he takes on – when it comes to serious crimes, he has a “radar” sense of sorts that kicks in whenever something bad is about to go down – turn out to be connected somehow. Soon, he crosses paths with a highly unconventional priest. Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who happens to be a “specialist”. Quiet street, creepy house, lone figure in a brimmed hat carrying a valise and silhouetted against the glare from a window and street-light, that kind of specialist.
If you have strong memories of the demonic possession film of all time, you will undoubtedly recognise a good number of the indicators, warnings and admonitions here. DUFE unashamedly reintroduces us to much of the lore from the 1973 classic The Exorcist, with the added elements of police investigative procedure, chases and stakeouts. The combination actually works well, especially in a late scene where Sarchie and Butler hunt for their prime suspect in an (again, creepy!) apartment building.
The film also adds a new angle to the typical story of a hard-boiled cop alienated from his family – wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and little daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson) – who are inevitably drawn into Sarchie’s case.
It’s all quite sensational, really, and more than a bit familiar, but Derrickson (who co-wrote the screenplay based on the real-life Sarchie’s non-fiction book Beware The Night) keeps things intriguing and, on occasion, disgusting enough to hold our attention.
Bana and Ramirez also hold up their end of the deal very capably, their respective soul-baring moments coming across quite well and making their characters flawed, driven and believable. Credit is also due Sean Harris’ way as one of the “affected” US soldiers; he works well with the make-up and lighting crew to make his pivotal character a neat, chilling bundle of mystery, cruelty and pure sinister menace.
By the time the film’s set-piece exorcism comes around, we the viewers have been well primed to cringe, jump and cheer at all the right moments. And when it’s all over, you’ll probably wonder if the real Ralph Sarchie’s exploits were anywhere near as wild as this. You’ll have to read the book to find out, but a bit of armchair research yielded some interesting facts.
First, Mendoza seems to be a composite of the real exorcism and demonology “mentors” in Sarchie’s past. And second, two of those mentors are none other than Ed and Lorraine Warren, the same paranormal investigator couple whose exploits were dramatised in last year’s The Conjuring! (So, while the spirit realm may seem vast, it’s really quite a small world after all.)
From what I’ve seen here, I’d say the Doctor Strange movie is in good hands. As for DUFE, the verdict is that it’s an intense and entertaining bag of the new and the old, with more things that work than ones that fall flat. But you will feel like showering after watching it.