JULY 3, 2014
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
My well documented love for Armageddon aside, there is no question that Jerry Bruckheimer's solo work on the whole pales next to the films he made with the late Don Simpson - it's kind of funny that one of the best post-Simpson films is Enemy of the State, which still listed him as a producer (I assume it was developed before his passing). Sure, he had some big hits with the Pirates series and the two (sigh, where's 3?) National Treasure movies, but for every one of those there's a couple of Bad Companys or Kangaroo Jacks. So it wasn't his name that drew me to Deliver Us From Evil, though it did add some curiosity since this would be his first genre film since 1982's Cat People* remake.
No, it was Scott Derrickson's role as writer/director that had me excited, as he was behind one of my favorite horror flicks of 2012 (Sinister) as well as 2005's The Exorcism Of Emily Rose - for my money one of the best of its type (basically #2 to Exorcist, if memory serves, though I certainly have tons of fun with the gonzo 70s ripoffs). Deliver would have him returning to the exorcism genre, but rather than a standard "this girl is possessed and after we've exhausted all medical/scientific possibilities let's call a priest" structure it would take the form of a Se7en style police thriller, with Eric Bana playing Ralph Sarchie, a real life cop with a penchant for paranormal-tinged cases.
So on paper it sounds like a home run, right? You get a horror guy doing what he does best working with Bruckheimer, who can bring the resources for a summer blockbuster about cops, right? But the thing is, the movie wasn't meant to open on the vaunted July 4th weekend - it was originally set for January (which would have our expectations in the toilet), only for Sony to get confident in the film and bump it up 6 months. I assume it was last summer's smash success of The Conjuring that gave them the idea - another R rated movie with "based on a true story" flair, from a director coming off a very profitable Jason Blum production (Wan with Insidious, Derrickson with Sinister). Therefore it's best to keep the "summer" part of your expectations in check - this is NOT a big budget, End of Days style megamovie that blends the action and horror genres. In fact there's almost zero Bruckheimer influence on display at all - Bana has worked with him before (in Black Hawk Down), but otherwise it doesn't display any of his input. The Christopher Young score is in line with his other genre offerings, not a Hans Zimmer-y presentation of bombast, and humor is kept to a minimum (that it's one of Brucky's rare R rated offerings should have tipped you to that - there's some really grim stuff here).
Once I realized that the Bruckheimer machine didn't overpower Derrickson's (and Paul Boardman's) script, I settled into the movie a lot easier (hey, I don't get out much these days - I was kind of HOPING for dumb action stuff mixed into the horror! Instead it starts with a dead baby about the same size as the one I was leaving for a few hours). As I said earlier, it's sort of like a possession-tinged Se7en, with our two hero cops (Bana's partner is played by Joel McHale, from the only thing I love on the same level as Armageddon) chasing a villain through their rainy city (it's set in New York but the level of rain seems more Seattle-y to me). But it's not a serial killer they're after; one night they get two seemingly unrelated calls (a domestic disturbance and a freak "accident" at the zoo) and discover that they are connected. As they track down leads and uncover an incident that occurred in Abu Dhabi (seen, briefly, in the film's prologue), it becomes clear that they're dealing with something supernatural.
Enter Édgar Ramírez as Father Mendoza, who knew one of the victims and seems to know more about what's going on than the cops. Here I was reminded of the show Grimm - we have our hero but two partners (on Grimm, which I gave up watching after a few episodes, he's got his cop partner and his werewolf partner), crowding the plot a bit and diffusing some of its buddy movie spirit (which was working quite well, with McHale busting the more serious Bana's balls but also proving to be an able fighter). I love the guy, but he could have been removed from the movie entirely or as a shock kill 20 minutes in - indeed, McHale more or less exits the movie for what seems like 40 minutes once Sarchie and Mendoza begin their alliance, only to return for a sequence where Mendoza is sitting out in a car the whole time. Also, I don't think McHale's character actually has a conversation with Mendoza, but then again no one really does. If I didn't know better I'd swear Mendoza was meant to be a ghost or imaginary character, as he bizarrely never really interacts with anyone else in the cast, despite being such a prominent part of it. There's a scene late in the film where Bana makes a phone call for backup without identifying who he called - I assumed it was Mendoza, but it's actually just two other cops that share his desk area (these two seemed like they were more significant characters at one point, but they're largely just blurry dudes in the background behind Bana).
The movie's real strength stems from its setpieces - I realized as I sat down for the movie that the trailers never really explained what the movie was about, instead offering up giant chunks from a few individual scenes (including the climactic exorcism), which was probably the right call. The investigation isn't really a mystery - it only takes about a half hour or so for Sarchie to figure out who the bad guy is, with the rest of the movie devoted to trying to find him as Mendoza convinces Sarchie about the possession part of the deal (as is typical, Sarchie doesn't believe in God and this sort of stuff and thus needs convincing). So if the trailers showed any of it there wouldn't be much to invest the audience in - best to leave that for our discovery (the reviewer says after explaining a big chunk of it - sorry) and just focus on cool/creepy stuff like self-rolling owls and a possessed dude making windows break all around him and such. Luckily the trailer didn't spoil the obligatory cat scare - it's actually one of the best in ages (oddly End of Days' one worked too - what is it about New York set action/horror films?).
Another thing the trailer thankfully avoided was how a part of the plot involves The Doors, as it would have kept me from seeing it until Blu-ray, where I could mute it. I know they have their fans and were a big infuence on later rock acts, but my GOD do I hate this band (I once stated that I didn't know what the word "pretentious" meant until I saw the Stone biopic). "Break On Through" is OK I guess, but all of their other songs just grate me on a level I usually reserve for pop garbage like Black Eyed Peas - so when one of the possessed folks started rattling off lyrics (think "Connect the cuts" from Devil Inside), and Sarchie began hearing one of their songs when no one else could (that must be what true hell feels like - no one to share the misery of "People Are Strange"), I just sighed heavily. I mean, using ANY rock song as a clue is kind of hokey (see: "All Along The Watchtower" in Battlestar Galactica), but when it's these assholes... sorry, movie, you lost me for a bit.
But overall I enjoyed it; I wish the mystery was a bit more drawn out and/or things escalated to something more unnerving (the possessed guy kidnaps Sarchie's family and we're supposed to think they might be dead, but come on), but it had several terrific setpieces, three charismatic actors in the lead roles, and an attempt at blending two sub-genres that you rarely see together. I also got to thinking - 90% of the "first time I watched Exorcist" stories are from people who saw it at a very young age and it left a deep, scarring impression on them - which can make exorcism/possession movies they see as adults harder to appreciate. I, however, didn't see it until I was 19, and so while I understood and appreciated its power, it didn't really scare me all that much, so there's less of a hurdle for other possession movies to clear. I think it's easy to dismiss all of these as "Nowhere near as good as Exorcist!" when the movie warped your impressionable mind (indeed, it may be why I can be so harsh on haunted house movies, as I saw Poltergeist at such a young age), so keep that in mind when you're reading outright pans of this one. It's not perfect, but it's a solid bit of entertainment and (obviously) a nice alternative to everything else out there right now (not a single building destroyed!). And it makes me sad that we're going to lose Derrickson for a few years while he plays in the big Marvel box - there aren't too many horror directors that are committed to grim/disturbing fare for our multiplexes. Hopefully he comes back - long as he leaves The Doors behind.
What say you?
*Cat People also featured a zoo, which is a funny bit of trivia, as one of Deliver's highlights is a scene set in the Bronx Zoo - the first film to shoot there since Altered States, from what I understand.