Mainstream horror gets a bad rap, and most of the time deservedly so. Its often not as good as the horror that remains with the undertow and the rarities that are are often again part of the lower end of the ‘good’ spectrum. There has been a divide created over the last year or two, however, within horror films that get wider theatrical distribution. There’s the truly terrible stuff like Paranormal Activity 4 and The Marked Ones, and actually quite good stuff like Oculus and The Quiet Ones, with a safe middle ground of titles such as The Conjuring and Insidious; not awful, but not amazing either. Now, Sinister director Scott Derrickson has decided to try once again to break the mold of big budget horror films and create something irregular amongst the regular with Deliver Us From Evil, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Eric Bana. While he does get some things right, it still falls at many of the same hurdles.
While there are alarm bells going off with the fact that this is both ‘based on actual events’ and an exorcism story, the opening scenes actually set the tone very well. There’s a real sense of darkness and grit as we’re introduced to New York City on just another night as Bana’s Ralph Sarchie is investigating a dead body. Its very refreshing an almost leaves you feeling optimistic that this is finally a film that’s taking an old paradigm and breaking it a little bit. That is, until the dialog starts and you get reminded that this isn’t an indie film and that you shouldn’t get your hopes up. Every conversation had, whether it’s with Sarchie’s partner Butler (Joel McHale, Community), the priest ((there’s always a priest) Edgar Ramirez, Zero Dark Thirty) or his wife, Jen (Olivia Munn, Freeloaders), is entirely predictable within the first sentence. Not once, not once during this film could I not predict exactly the kind of story each exchange was going to provide.
Now, I have no problem with cliché, I think it’s a necessary evil, and even moreso if you can use a cliché in a piece of self-aware satire, but when every single major plot-point and important dialog is steeped in the juices of half-baked cliché, you might want to re-assess your recipe. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, plenty of films come out every year that are absolute stereotypes, if the film was just a cliché, but its not and it handles this really odd balance between the well-made imagery and dark tone and pure predictability.
The lore is mysterious in the right ways, the ‘bad guys’ look and act very creepily and the how the pieces of the puzzle are put together feels actually quite thought-out, but every time the pace quickens and it seems like some unexpected ideas are about to jump out at you like a clown at a surprise party, the un-originality just limps forth instead. Even the jump-scares, the most basic form of getting a cheap thrill out of an audience, feel incredibly limp, but that points to the more crucial problem with this film – it’s not really a horror film. With all the night-time scenes and psuedo-gritty on-screen portrayals, there’s more in common with thrillers like Fallen and The Crow than most straight horror films. There’s a really good chiller with straight-horror elements here that’s being forced to be a horror film against its will, and like most things when shoe-horned, it just fails at it. If every jump scare was replaced with a dramatic chase or piece of well written dialog, not only would the overall tone be better accentuated, but the film’s almost-two-hours run-time would feel more justified and more full with actual entertainment.
Despite all this though, I actually quite enjoyed Deliver Us From Evil. The thriller aspects are good and if you see it not as a horror film, but more of a detective chiller story, you’re much more likely to get a kick out of it. The performances are sincere, despite a lackluster script and the imagery is on point. Horror stalwart Christopher Young’s soundtrack is very fitting, complimenting the very dreary, low-key mood of the film. Its far, far from re-inventing the wheel, but between this and Sinister, it is possible that Scott Derrickson has a truly great film inside him, at least in my opinion. If he manages to get the funding for a film that feels less like a wannabe horror jump-scare fest and more like a very secure thriller/drama with horror elements, then we would be in for a treat. Until then, if you’re considering it, I can’t say this is a complete waste of your time.