Director Scott Derrickson, who delivered the truly frightening (and pro-Christian) “Exorcism of Emily Rose” in 2005, goes back to the well with “Deliver Us From Evil,” a blend of demonic possession and police procedural genres that reinvents neither but does manage to freak you out in spots. “Deliver” is also the most pro-Catholic film produced by mainstream Hollywood since I can’t remember when.
Just like its grand-pappy “The Exorcist” (1973), Iraq is where our story begins. During a firefight in 2010, three American soldiers happen upon a creepy black tunnel that leads to some sort of shrine or temple. Things suddenly go dark, someone screams, “What the fuck is that!” and we cut to the Bronx three years later and the dead, abandoned baby troubled NYPD sergeant Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) couldn’t save.
Sarchie is an adrenaline junkie with what his equally gung-ho partner Butler (Joel McHale) calls a “radar” for the hairiest calls — which they both live for. When Sarchie’s radar tells him a run-of-the-mill domestic disturbance call might be more exciting than advertised, Sarchie has no idea how right he is.
A demon has traveled from Iraq to the South Bronx and is now recruiting followers. But Sarchie, a former altar boy who “outgrew” his faith at age 12, just sees what he has seen his whole career: sick people doing sick things. Father Mendoza (a terrific Edgar Ramirez), a Jesuit priest, exorcist, and friend to a woman who just tossed her newborn into the lion’s den at the Bronx Zoo, disagrees.
At first Sarchie wants nothing to do with Mendoza and his misguided compassion for people capable of such evil. Eventually, though, things get freaky enough where even a lapsed Catholic who thinks he has all answers realizes he doesn’t. And so, an alliance between a young, hip priest and an intense cop made vulnerable by his sins, past and present, begins.
Mendoza immediately sees through Sarchie’s religious cynicism. He once shared it. His past is such that he has to give in to the booze and smokes that will kill him slower than the heroin that would kill him immediately. Before experiencing the miracle of confession, Mendoza was every bit as haunted by his sins (including an abortion) as Sarchie. Demons use your sins against you, Mendoza explains. Unless Sarchie can make a leap of faith and humble himself before God in confession, they haven’t got a chance.
The character of Father Mendoza could do for Catholic priests what “Top Gun” (1986) did for Navy fighter pilots. He makes being a devout, devoted and sincere lover of Jesus Christ and Catholicism just that cool. Mendoza is hip without being ironic, cool without being above-it-all, wise as opposed to preachy, and if you joke about him being a pedophile he’ll calmly shame you for hurling a stereotype.
On that level, “Deliver” is truly special. The heart of this horror film, that looks as though it was filmed on sets left behind by “Se7en,” is the beauty and mystery of Catholicism. Some dust got in my eyes during the closing scene.
As a straight horror movie, though, the movie is less successful. The exorcism sequence is probably worth the price of a matinee but most of the scares are of the BOO! variety. You won’t be bored, but over time the flickering lights, dark hallways, and flashlights lose their impact.
There’s no question Derrickson, his set designers, and composer are aiming for that growing sense of dread that lifts horror movies to another level, but it never develops.
“Deliver Us from Evil” is R-rated for violence and gore, and based on the real-life Ralph Sarchie, who retired from the NYPD after 26 years and now works as a demonologist.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC