Exorcism movies, it must be noted, are surprisingly common. And with one glorious exception, they don’t usually come off very well. Deliver Us from Evil can’t escape the clichés and silliness that the subgenre inevitably holds, though for a while, director Scott Derrickson convinces us that something better is in the works. His previous film, Sinister, ranks as one of the best horror movies of the last few years, and this one shows early signs of following suit.
Derrickson takes his cues from Seven and the gritty cop films of the 1970s that informed it. His hero, Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) is an NYPD cop who stumbles onto something unholy in the dark alleyways of his precinct. A woman tosses her two-year-old into the lion’s den at the Bronx Zoo. A man beats his wife before turning on the arresting officer. The body of a house painter is discovered swollen with vermin and tucked away in a basement. Just another night in The Big Apple, right? But the more Sarchie probes these cases, the closer they tie together, and the more the culprit comes to resemble something beyond the merely human.
The mystery itself proves quite enticing, bolstered by dark cinematography by Scott Kevan that revels in the skeeziest corners of New York’s worst neighborhoods. Bana delivers a solid performance to keep us grounded: a tough guy who’s seen too much and now fears that the darkness of his work will overcome his family. It treads close to stereotype, but Derrickson avoids slipping too far, leaving us with a flawed- yet-sympathetic hero and a darkly elegant riddle to unravel. For the first hour or so, it works quite well, even with a sexy-weird Jesuit (Edgar Ramirez) showing up to point out the things we all pretty much knew going in.
Deliver Us from Evil also benefits from our expectations and the tension that arises when it shies away from them. Supremely creepy moments build with slow regularity, circling Sarchie and his family until they’re practically in the same room together. Like his previous films, Derrickson shows a knack for pulling us in and holding us until the end, thanks to a good sense of narrative development and a fine pacing that holds us rapt.
Sadly, all of that build-up needs a big kicker to seal the deal, and on that front, Deliver Us from Evil trips on its own shoelaces. The final act consists of a tacked-on hostage situation dependent upon a full-bore exorcism to resolve, which results in the usual nonsense involving holy water and unpleasant bodily fluids. The climactic scene succumbs to the clichés that had previous nipped around the film’s edges. Even worse, it carries no sense of dramatic release or energy. For all the thrashing and shrieking, it’s actually pretty dull, which the film seems to cover up with a few nasty jolts of body horror. We’re left with a lot of logistical questions and a supremely contrived finale that cheerfully ignores all the development that came before it. It doesn’t quite undo the film’s better qualities, but it certainly constitutes one hell of a letdown.
Deliver Us from Evil has the horror field to itself right now, and Derrickson has proven himself one of the genre’s brighter voices. That should be enough to get the curious into the theaters this weekend, and for most of the running time, their faith will be rewarded. But that last step is a doozy and as countless filmmakers have learned, you need to stick the dismount to make all the previous hard work hold up. Deliver Us from Evil shows us a strong voice with a lot more to say. It’s a pity that he couldn’t quite say it as well as he needed to here.