Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2014

Deliver Us from Evil

Standard delivery

Same old faithless cop, same old exorcism in 'Deliver Us from Evil'

Deliver Us from Evil
Sony Pictures Releasing
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenplay: Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, based on the 2001 book Beware the Night, by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool
Starring: Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn, Sean Harris, Joel McHale and Chris Coy
Rated R / 1 hour, 58 minutes
July 2, 2014
(out of four)

Here we go again with the true stories.

Scott Derrickson's Deliver Us from Evil announces itself as just that - specifically, it's "inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant" - which puts it in league with most other studio horror movies. But you know what might help the credibility of these movies a little bit? If the movies themselves actually felt like personal stories instead of boilerplate genre entries.

Deliver Us from Evil is almost startlingly unoriginal on that front, its human story co-opted by all-too-familiar, easy-to-digest genre conventions. Based on the non-fiction book Beware the Night, co-written by NYPD cop-turned-demonologist Ralph Sarchie about his own experiences, the film has a potentially intriguing background. But it plays out like little more than a possession/exorcism greatest-hits reel - indeed, it bears little resemblance to the anecdotes and memoirs that inspired it - to the extent that it practically didn't need any source material at all. Sony could have saved itself whatever it cost to buy the rights to Sarchie's book and come up with a virtually identical result, using every single other demonic-possession movie as source material. I'm sure there's an interesting movie to be made from these "true events," but that's not the movie we've gotten; Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman have seen to it that nothing too idiosyncratic or unique has snuck into the film version.

I'm not arguing in favor of fidelity to Beware the Night - of that I couldn't care less; but it doesn't speak well of the filmmakers that all they could come up with in the adaptation was this sorry collection of clichés: the non-believing, unusually intuitive cop; the beautiful wife and loving daughter that the cop never sees because he works too damn hard; the wisecracking partner; the placid, wise, troubled priest who sees evil for what it is, and opens the non-believing cop's eyes.

Derrickson doesn't earn those clichés; they never feel anything but obligatory. When Sarchie's wife Jen (Olivia Munn) confronts him early in the film and admonishes him for his absence around the house lately, it is pure exposition - not character. It's just a cheap scene that places Sarchie (Eric Bana) inside an ossified prototype - the Overworked Cop. The Husband Who Works Too Late And Never Sees His Kids Anymore. Has there ever been a movie cop who wasn't overworked and distanced from his family?

I know art imitates life, and I'm sure there are elements of truth to the details within Deliver Us from Evil; but they're lost amid the monotony of a tired formula. (Strangely, I was reminded of my complaints about the back-to-back offerings of Ray and Walk the Line, a pair of true stories about real - and very different - people that somehow managed to be, in effect, the same movie. Even if all the films' respective events were rooted in truth, there was an inherent laziness in what the filmmakers chose to focus on. I felt the same way watching this movie - no matter how much of it may or may not be "true," it still feels like a reductive exercise. Surely Ralph Sarchie, his family and his experiences have more to offer than this.)

Derrickson, whose last effort was 2012's far superior Sinister, is nothing if not earnest in his approach, and serious-minded in his intentions. This is a world in which evil is very much a palpable thing; his hero, Sarchie, is keenly aware of it, to the extent that his partner, Butler (Joel McHale), calls it his "radar." He always seems to have a feel for when something genuinely bad is going down. Derrickson evokes Taxi Driver (and perhaps its quasi-companion piece, Bringing Out the Dead) with his subjective point-of-view shots as Sarchie and Butler drive through New York City, gliding past its sinful sidewalks and their inhabitants, bathed in white light. It gets even bleaker with its stylistic connections to Se7en - primarily in the gritty darkness and even details of some of Sarchie's crime scenes (not to mention the religious flavor of the crimes themselves). And just to make the reference explicitly clear, the camera at one point hovers on the neck and back of McHale's character, where he has each of the seven deadly sins quite prominently tattooed.

But for all the sophistication of the filmmaking, there's little to speak of anywhere else in the story. The performances, if not the accents, are generally fine. The standout is Édgar Ramírez, as a priest and demonologist who tries to bring the skeptical Sarchie into the proverbial light, once again proving that he's worthy of bigger and better roles than this one.

But those efforts are ill-served by a movie that doesn't know what to do with its material, beyond simply repeating everything we already know about exorcism movies. I'll say it again: There's probably a good story buried in this subject matter somewhere. The makers of this movie just didn't find it.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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