Why would a mother at the zoo throw her toddler over a railing into the moat of a lion enclosure? That’s the kind of horrible question that can look very different if you are a police officer or a priest.
When Sgt. Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) skeptically tells Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) that he thinks it’s crazy to “blame invisible fairies” for the bad things people do, it’s not hard to see his point of view. Ordinary depravity and ruthlessness as well as mental illness are daily experiences for beat cops like him.
But when Father Mendoza distinguishes between “secondary evil” (the bad things people do) and “primary evil” (malign spiritual forces), it’s not hard to see his point of view either. Sometimes, in the face of a particular atrocity, mundane explanations seem to pall, particularly with horrifying crimes that seem to lack sufficient motivation or where there is some kind of occult or quasi-religious element. The recent “Slender Man” attacks are a tragic contemporary example.
Most films about possession, hauntings and other paranormal phenomena are structured as suspense or puzzle pieces, with a diagnostic or therapeutic approach toward determining what is going on and how to address it. Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose took a forensic approach, blending a possession/exorcism story with courtroom drama.
In Deliver Us From Evil, a mash-up of demonic horror and police procedural, Derrickson and his usual writing partner Paul Harris Boardman take a completely different approach. As a cop, Sarchie’s concern is not where evil comes from, only what its effects are, particularly when they are criminal.
Together with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil bespeaks a sensibility that resists circumscribing the demonic as the special provenance of characters inhabiting typical horror-movie scenarios. The milieux of courtroom dramas and police procedurals are not normal settings for demons or exorcists, but Derrickson’s intriguing premise is that demons cannot be confined to where we expect to find them.
Sarchie has what his partner Butler (Joel McHale, relishing a non-comic role) calls a “radar” for unusually disturbing cases, though he doesn’t seem to understand how his “radar” works or what it detects. This came as a disconcerting surprise to me. At first, I took Sarchie for a devout Catholic with an acute awareness of spiritual evil, fighting ordinary human evil (“secondary evil”) with his badge, but on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary that might require a different approach.
I don’t think this was entirely because I went into the film vaguely aware that it was inspired by the memoir of a real New York cop named Ralph Sarchie, who worked for years both as a police officer and as a self-described demonologist, investigating potential cases of demonic activity. Early scenes seem to suggest this interpretation.
In one of the film’s best sequences, Sarchie and Butler arrive at a house where they find an Italian family sleeping together in the living room for fear of unexplained phenomena emanating, they believe, from the cellar. Pointing to a crucifix, they say the corpus fell off and broke.
Warily descending into the cellar with flashlights drawn, the two spot an object on a table that seems to be twitching by itself. “There!” says Sarchie, like an exterminator spotting vermin. The scene plays cleverly on the nerves with the ambiguity of what we see and hear.
After sequences like this, the revelation that Sarchie is actually a skeptical Christmas-and-Easter Catholic forced me to rethink what had gone before. The truth is that Deliver Us From Evil is a sort of origin story, though this was not apparent to me from the outset, and I’m not sure it really works as such. A dark chapter in Sarchie’s back story gives his moral arc some weight, but he’s too unsympathetic for too long, particularly in his increasingly fractious relationship with his devout wife (archetypally beatific Olivia Munn).
More compelling to me than Sarchie is Father Mendoza, played by Ramírez as a man who has internalized the Serenity Prayer through long trial and error. He’s a type of priest I’ve never seen on the screen before: a wounded healer, struggling not with doubt, but with his own fallenness, working to save others while also working out his own salvation.
Father Mendoza wears street clothes rather than clerical blacks — an intriguing choice in a medium that has often put even Protestant clergy in Roman collars — and speaks frankly of his history with addiction and other serious sins, both before and after ordination. At a bar, Sarchie notices the priest give the waitress a second look and sarcastically expresses mock surprise that the priest’s proclivities run toward women. Unfazed, Father Mendoza says something like, “Any other stereotypes you want to trot out?”
Father Mendoza’s Hispanic heritage is an asset in more ways than one, above all in a pair of exorcism scenes. What he does in the first is a low-key surprise that ranks among the film’s most evocative moments both tonally and spiritually. Later, he does something in a way even more interesting.
Ever since The Exorcist, exorcism movies set in the post-Vatican II era have generally depicted the rite in the vernacular rather than in Latin. Horror movies have used Latin in other ways; Latin even appears in Deliver Us From Evil, in an ominous inscription beginning Invocamus (“We call upon”). Apparently the devil still uses Latin, yet when officers of the Latin Church square off against him these days, it’s in the language of everyday speech.
The syllables and intonations of Latin exude antiquity, authority, mysticism and esoteric power. Not only horror movies, but movies generally, have long recognized this, so much so that there is an “Ominous Latin Chanting” entry at TVTropes.org. Whether or not Latin would be more effective in an actual exorcism, it would unquestionably be more effective in an exorcism movie.
What Father Mendoza does, though, is very nearly the next best thing: In mid-rite, he switches from English to Spanish. (I’m not sure, but he might get off one line in Latin.) Spanish isn’t Latin, but it’s a Romance language, and in an English-language film, it offers something of the feel of liturgical Latin.
Derrickson cheerfully alternates between somber existential moodiness and gonzo horror-movie excess, neither of which work all the time. The tendency of lights and other technology to fail in the presence of the demonic is overused to the point of being predictable rather than chilling. A glib cut from an ominous hieroglyph depicting an owl to a stuffed toy owl is meant to invest the latter with a sinister aura but doesn’t sell the idea of the owl as a potential locus of evil. It doesn’t help that the owl ties into a third-act dramatic move echoing last year’s The Conjuring, where it made more sense.
Sean Harris and Olivia Horton are unnerving as victims of full-on possession in a genre context that doesn’t expect demonic possession. The film makes darkly atmospheric use of Bronx location shooting, though the pervasive gloom and squalor won’t do anything for the borough’s image. My favorite detail: the Bronx Zoo’s bug carousel, which, although I never thought about it, would be really spooky at night, especially if some demon-possessed fugitive started it up.
Interview: Scott Derrickson
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: (See, everything is cooler in Latin.) Intense, graphic violence; plenty of menace, scariness and gruesome or otherwise disturbing images; some obscene and crude language; references to drug addiction and sexual immorality. Mature viewing.