Saturday, July 5, 2014

In Theaters: DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman. Cast: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Sean Harris, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Mike Houston, Lulu Wilson, Olivia Horton, Scott Johnsen. (R, 118 mins)

It's been 41 years since THE EXORCIST was released and filmmakers still crank out demonic possession movies as if they have something new to bring to the table. DVD bargain bins are cluttered with the forgettable likes of STIGMATA (1999), LOST SOULS (2000), THE UNBORN (2009), THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT (2009), THE RITE (2011), THE DEVIL INSIDE (2012), and THE POSSESSION (2012). THE LAST EXORCISM (2010) was a well-done found-footage variant, though it spawned an awful sequel. Writer-director Scott Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman fashioned one of the more relatively interesting entries in the current possession parade with 2005's THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE which, while not a great movie by any means, was a surprisingly compelling mix of demonic horror and courtroom drama, a sort-of LAW & ORDER: EXORCISM based on the case of Annaliese Michel (also chronicled in the 2006 German film REQUIEM and the 2011 Asylum knockoff ANNALIESE: THE EXORCIST TAPES) that got a lot of mileage from the presence of respectable actors like Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney, plus Jennifer Carpenter's impressive performance as the possessed Emily Rose. Derrickson later helmed 2012's grim and disturbing SINISTER without Boardman, but the duo are back together for another possession rehash with the "inspired by true events" DELIVER US FROM EVIL. Based on the experiences of Bronx cop-turned-demonologist Ralph Sarchie (played here by Eric Bana), chronicled in his 2001 book Beware the Night, the hopelessly generic DELIVER US FROM EVIL doles out just about every possession cliche you've been seeing since 1973, but seems especially devoted to recycling major plot points of 1990's THE EXORCIST III, minus William Peter Blatty's sharply unique writing and his direction of numerous unsettling sequences throughout. Derrickson's lazy jump scares can be seen coming a mile away (when Sarchie closely examines grainy surveillance footage, you know an evil face is going to flash on the screen and make him bolt back in his seat) and the possession bits get downright laughable as things go on, as the classic rock-savvy demon seems to have an odd affinity for The Doors, haunting Sarchie with greatest hits staples like "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" and "People are Strange," and even hurls some "Is everybody in?  The ceremony is about to begin!" as the exorcism commences.  Call me a possession genre purist, but I'll take "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell!" any day of the week.

Sarchie is a tough-as-nails cop working the night shift with wisecracking, hot-dogging partner Butler (a miscast Joel McHale, looking ridiculous in an Alice in Chains tee and the seven deadly sins tattooed on his neck).  The job is taking its toll on Sarchie, though perhaps it wouldn't if he didn't let his internal "radar" direct him to jump on every dangerous call that comes over the radio. He's got a loving, church-going wife in Jen (Olivia Munn) and an impossibly cute daughter (Lulu Harris), and Jen looks past his being a lapsed Catholic, lamenting that she--wait for it--feels like she doesn't know him anymore and "Even when ya heah, ya not heah." Over the course of a few shifts, Sarchie and Butler encounter a dead baby thrown in the trash, a woman (Olivia Horton) tossing her child in a ravine outside the lion's den at the Bronx Zoo, a dead handyman (Scott Johnsen) in a basement, and Jimmy (Chris Coy), an Iraq War vet who's beating his wife. They're all connected by another Iraq War vet named Santino (Sean Harris), who's caught on camera and seen by witnesses at all of the crime scenes.  Sarchie is hounded by Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a loose-cannon priest who dabbles in exorcism on the side. The Bronx zoo mom is a member of his parish, and he's convinced she's demonstrating signs of demonic possession. Soon, these evil forces invade Sarchie's life as he begins seeing and hearing things that aren't there on a conscious level, and his daughter falls victim to the out-of-tune strains of a beat-up jack-in-the-box and a stuffed toy owl that hoots on its own. Mendoza informs Sarchie that he has a gift, that his "radar" for cases is actually a sixth sense gift of a connection to the spirit world, and that the spirit may be targeting him for a past sin.

It's hard to imagine what past sins Bana and Ramirez committed to get stranded in a film as bad as this one. They're fine actors but they can't really bring much life to these characters. The spiritual conversations between Sarchie and Mendoza don't exactly have the same sense of insight, banter, and rich characterization that you've seen in similar scenes between Lee J. Cobb's Lt. Kinderman and Jason Miller's Father Karras in THE EXORCIST, or George C. Scott's Kinderman and Ed Flanders' Father Dyer in THE EXORCIST III. Derrickson is pretty shameless in his EXORCIST III worship throughout, from the cop angle to an irresponsible doctor in the psych ward to a possession victim going on a rampage in the hospital, acting under the control of the demonic spirit. Sarchie even races home once he realizes the possessed Santino is at his house, just like Viveca Lindfors' shears-wielding nurse in Blatty's film. Derrickson and Boardman (the duo also wrote Atom Egoyan's empty DEVIL'S KNOT) try to awkwardly shoehorn in some Iraq War commentary but they never really allow it to develop.  Santino, Jimmy, and the handyman were all vets who encountered a Latin verse carved into the wall of a cave as some evil latched on to them. Are the filmmakers trying to make some kind of heavy-handed analogy between PTSD and possession?  Who knows?  They can't even follow through on all of the plot threads, the constant Doors references are just silly, the SNL "Da War of Da Woilds" accents overbaked, the SE7EN-inspired set design too darkly-photographed, and the only thing that really keeps your attention is the recurring continuity flub with the bandaging on Sarchie's right arm that appears and disappears throughout. Drab and dull, overlong and underthought, the tired and vacant DELIVER US FROM EVIL wheezes its way to its weak conclusion, seemingly working from a checklist rather than an actual script.

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