HBO’s smash hit “True Detective” came with plenty of haunting imagery and unique storytelling ability, but the television miniseries also came with a tagline that’s easily appropriated by any number of lesser properties. “Touch darkness and darkness touches back,” it promised and, oddly enough, that’s the message that rings out from nearly every frame of Scott Derrickson’s “Deliver Us From Evil."
(The film’s own tagline, “Inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant,” is a little too unwieldy for its own good, though it certainly drives home the point that film is rooted in someone’s reality.)
It’s not just that the film is, quite literally, exceedingly dark - even when Derrickson’s film ventures out during daylight hours or into offices that should be otherwise very well-lit, the entire production is dim enough to make its audience squint - but it’s that Derrickson plays with the idea that evil, true evil, leaves its mark on everything and everyone around it.
Derrickson’s feature opens in 2010, smack in the middle of the Iraq War, instantly conveying the sense that violence, unease, and man’s place in such things will play a large part of what follows. Yet, it’s not the dark heart of war or the violence that human beings can do to each other that break down the soldiers we briefly meet in that opening – it’s something far more nefarious, primal, and not at all human. Four years later and half a world away, NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) doesn’t have time to worry about inhuman evil, because he’s busy battling the manmade kind.
When Sarchie works, it’s always night, it’s always raining, and he’s always on the verge of discovering something truly awful (dead babies, crazed mothers, abusive husbands, Sarchie gets the worst of the worst and then some). Sarchie apparently possesses some kind of “radar” for crime – basically, he’s oddly adept at sniffing out seemingly everyday crimes that are masking something that often approaches evil – but even he’s unprepared for the string of odd events that begin to unfold once he and his partner Butler (Joel McHale) answer a call at the Bronx Zoo.
What sounds strange – a young mother has thrown her baby into the lion enclosure and run off to terrorize some monkeys – soon takes on a different cast when a mysterious (and exceedingly creepy) painter not only refuses to answer any questions, but then unleashes a pair of lions on Sarchie.
The film quickly pulls together a number of seemingly disparate storylines – a Marine who has been beating his wife, a family haunted by something in their basement, a hottie Jesuit priest (Edgar Ramirez) who claims to be treating Lion Den Mom, that Iraq-set opening – into one major plot, a glorified exorcism tale that ensnares everyone in its queasy darkness.
Sarchie begins to experience things that no one else around him even notices, and when Ramirez’s Father Mendoza tries to convince him that it’s all tied into “primary evil” (not the “secondary” kind Sarchie is so used to trafficking in), it’s hard to ignore that things seem to be beyond the realm of earthly troubles. The twist of “Deliver Us From Evil” is that Sarchie is a lapsed Catholic – a nonbeliever of the highest order – and understanding what he’s up against requires him to tune his faith in ways he’s loathe to explore.
Derrickson knows his way around a horror film, as he’s previously helmed some solid entries into the genre, including “Sinister” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” but the director doesn’t use his latest feature to add depth to his skills, and “Deliver Us From Evil” fails to add anything fresh or unique to either horror films at large and religiously themed horror in particular.
“Deliver Us From Evil” is never genuinely chilling, even with a number of surefire horror film tricks and tropes. It’s those genre conventions that keep the film from really scaring things up – dark places, blinking lights, basements that hold secrets, maimed animals, odd religious imagery, bugs and snakes, strange sounds – simply because they are so overdone and so expected. Nothing good ever happens in a dark basement, but “Deliver Us From Evil” still seems to think that’s the kind of lesson horror fans have forgotten.
Still, “Deliver Us From Evil” has enough to offer both fans of the genre and audience members who like fast-moving features, as it’s energetically cut and directed, with action scenes that are engaging and well-made. The film is well and interestingly cast, as Bana is a strong pick for the haunted sergeant who must be both very tough and very sympathetic, while McHale is an inspired option for his tough-talking and wise-cracking partner, Ramirez is a beguiling choice for the intriguing Mendoza, and Olivia Munn brings the appropriate female chemistry to the male-dominated cast.
Yet, for all its darkness (and for all that said darkness touches within the film’s ever-blacker storylines), “Deliver Us From Evil” never really scares up anything new. It’s got all the elements of a solid chiller, but those elements can only go so far without anything inventive and fresh to drive them, and “Deliver Us From Evil” doesn’t provide either.