Satan Bought a Zoo: Periodically creepy "Deliver Us from Evil" sins with hysteria

Deliver Us from Evil (2014)
118 min., rated R.

Writer-director Scott Derrickson is fully capable of confidently mastering a horror film more potently suggestive and frightening than most with his discipline and know-how for subverting genre beats. He surpassed expectations with 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which seamlessly melded courtroom drama and possession horror, and then crafted one of the most unnerving scare machines in years with 2012's "Sinister." Police procedural-demonic possession amalgamation "Deliver Us from Evil" marries "Se7en" and "The Exorcist," but it feels quite familiar (the 1998 Denzel Washington-starrer "Fallen" particularly comes to mind) and lacks the residual effects of the instinctive filmmaker's previous horror works. It's a pity that, aside from beginning to go down some compelling avenues, Derrickson is never able to go beyond the conventional standards of a possession horror pic with a reliance on flickering light bulbs, screaming flash frames, orgasmic orchestral stingers, and increasingly telegraphed jump scares.

All the better to claim that it's "inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant," the film, co-written by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, is loosely adapted from the real Sargeant Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool's book "Beware the Night." When we first meet decorated NYPD detective Sarchie (Eric Bana) in the present, he has found a dead baby in an alley in the south Bronx, so the job is not light. By his partner, Butler (Joel McHale), he's known for his "radar" of smelling out trouble in the city. One nighttime domestic call with an abusive husband leads to two more encounters with the body of a painter in a family's basement and an ex-Marine painter at the Bronx Zoo tied with a woman dropping her son into the lion pit. All evidence points to three dishonorably discharged Marines having brought something malevolent back from Iraq in 2010. Cue the participation of damaged, chain-smoking priest Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), who tries to erase Sarchie's skepticism. Meanwhile, Sarchie is trying to balance his work with his home life with his recently pregnant wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and their 6-year-old daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson), but he's always put his job first. Despite how he was raised, Sarchie may have "outgrown God" and now chalks everything up to logical human nature, until evil Latin invocations on walls and Santino (Sean Harris), one of the former Marines, become a part of a different evil lurking through the already-dangerous New York streets.

A religious-themed horror picture that has a skeptical cop up against evil forces, "Deliver Us from Evil" doesn't believe in subtlety or restraint apparently, and it runs in place for a long while with a disorganized storytelling style before finding a central focus. Director Derrickson can't resist a few good jolts, one being in night-vision at the light-free Bronx Zoo, and tries hitting them on unexpected beats. He must have saved his means on lighting, the film permanently shrouded in rainy greys and dark shadows and Scott Kevan's cinematography capturing an overcast urban malaise that of a kinetic, gritty cop actioner. Even then, the film does effectively hold a foreboding atmosphere, starting with its Iraq-set cave prologue. Appreciably R-rated but only periodically creepy and still feeling as if studio heads ordered for more jump-scare tactics to sell it as a more generic jack-in-the-box spooker, the film instills the viewer with the sense that we have seen this all before. Interest still rarely dissipates as clues are gathered and the viewer is usually kept on the same page as Sarchie, even if horror connoisseurs know that entering a dark basement is a terrible idea. This time, though, the care in storytelling often eludes Derrickson that it feels like a disappointing betrayal when Sarchie's "radar" gift of hearing noises and seeing images no one else can just goes out the window. Also, not only by Sarchie himself, the film too often turns the perils of his family (and the cannibalization of their pet fish) into afterthoughts. Then again, the segments in Christina Sarchie's bedroom could be their own separate movie, one that is eloquently shot and dread-inducing like something out of "The Conjuring" and "Sinister," with a creepy moment involving scratches under the floorboards and a stuffed owl with a mind of its own. 

Eric Bana does a creditable job in the lead role of Sgt. Ralph Sarchie, who must battle inner demons and reconfigure his faith, and (mostly) convinces with his hard Brooklyn accent. Édgar Ramírez is terrifically charismatic as Father Mendoza, mixing up the stereotypically saintly priest role with a background in womanizing, booze and cigarettes. A scene with Sarchie and Mendoza discussing their respective opinions on faith and God in a tavern is one of the more interestingly written pieces between characters. Partially stripped of his comedic persona on "The Soup" and "Community" in playing Butler, a grunged-up Joel McHale still gets in some welcome jokes, some of which critique going into a dark house, and a knife fight. Olivia Munn is able but squandered in such an underwritten, indistinguishable part of cop's naggy, neglected housewife Jen; she gets to act concerned, stay home where she wants her husband, and utter clichés, like "Even when you're here, you're not here." Of those who get to don the possession make-up, Olivia Norton, as the crazed Jane, and an indelibly freaky Sean Harris, as the possessed Santino who almost resembles Pinhead under that hood, do deserve some sort of props for playing crazy well.

The set-up of "Deliver Us from Evil" is involving, which frustrates when the final showdown between good and primary evil turns very overwrought and anticlimactic. Even for a possession film, where a priest exorcising a bleeding, frothing, contorting human vessel goes with the territory, it loses all control and goes to hell in a handbasket with a big, gonzo climax of glass-breaking and screaming that is more hokey and over-the-top than intense and scary. Riding the line of suitably cacophonous and heavy-handed, the score by reliable composer Christopher Young is nothing like the memorably skin-crawling, edgily crafted sounds in "Sinister," but it gets the job done, along with Paul N.J. Ottosson's sound design. There's also a promising leitmotif regarding The Doors' "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" and "People Are Strange," as if The Devil is a diehard Jim Morrison fan. Effects can be uneven, from a realistically grisly crucified feline to a distractingly schlocky corpse. Before a cool end-credits sequence, "Deliver Us from Evil" will make for a momentarily startling reel of prank scares on YouTube. As a film, there are shadings of a richer character study here, but as is, it has no real there there and only intermittently delivers the goods. For all of its trespasses, it ends up being only marginally better than the majority of tired "Exorcist" clones.

Grade: C +