Monday, July 7, 2014

Speak Of The Devil

Year: 2014
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Whatever happened to horror posters? At the risk of sounding like an "uphill both ways" old grump, I'd like to posit that studios are playing it way too safe with this year's slate of horror advertisement. And don't even get me started on the screechingly bad DVD cover art. The terribly bland shambles of a poster for Deliver Us From Evil in no way affects the outcome of the movie (which, in its own right, isn't very good), but it's worth noting that, if it was advertised effectively, people might actually go see it.

Deliver Us From Evil is yet another "true story," a horror cliché that has been experiencing a resurgence since the massive success of the "based on the true case files of the Warrens" The Conjuring. To those nervous types out there, never fear. That "inspired by" on the poster means that they added so much fiction to the NYPD sergeant's story that they can't even legally use the already morally dubious phrase "based on" to advertise their film.

Among the fictive elements are the time period, the priest character, the protagonist's backstory, and the antagonist in its entirety. In fact, the studio was so desperate to claw onto the success of James Wan's seminal and mature ghost story that they basically took the story nugget "police officer was friends with the Warrens" and throttled, poked, and prodded it until it resembled The Exorcist as closely as possible, even down to the dynamic between the lead characters and an opening scene in Iraq.

Although there weren't as many shirtless dudes in the Friedkin film.

To be fair, this film is much less beholden to the 1973 classic than recent flicks like The Last Exorcism or The Devil Inside thanks to its unique focus on police procedural and crime drama. The story goes as such. Sergeant Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) stumbles upon a series of interrelated cases thanks to what his adrenaline junkie partner Butler (Joel McHale, yes the guy from Community and The Soup) calls his "radar," a sort of sixth sense about unique emergencies.

A series of strange occurrences around the Bronx lead Bana on an epic quest to discover the source of the demonic possession of Mick Santino (Sean Harris) although, as is par for the course, he doesn't view it as such until long after the intervention of Father Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), a helpful hunk priest with a connection to one of Santino's victims.

Paranormal events begin building up and linking together across town in a vast web of evil until finally (SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU'VE NEVER SEEN A POSSESSION FILM) a third act exorcism completely derails everything and renders the rest of the plot entirely useless. It is a gamble that does not pay off because, while so much of the beginning of the film is about intrigue and investigation, the return to the normal tropes of the genre brings an adequate plot crashing down onto the cold, hard concrete.

It kills the momentum because there is no indication that such a lengthy process was vital to the plot at any point in the preceding 90 minutes of an already too-bloated film. It's something like if a romantic comedy managed to squeeze some laughs and awws out of a small update to a hoary formula - maybe... an unlikely couple fall in love in space (I'm not a screenwriter) - but then the last twenty minutes are just an exact recreation of the ending of Sleepless in Seattle. It's not like Sleepless is a terrible movie, but we've already seen it. And shoving your Martian princess into a scenario that brings her to the top of the Empire State Building would ruin all the goodwill your film has accrued up till now.

You see where I'm going with this.

 I couldn't be any clearer if I wrote it on the wall.

The plot also has a damning tendency to shift into plodding family drama whenever Sarchie returns home to his wife (Olivia Munn) and daughter (Lulu Wilson). This tonal shift highlights the kinks in the acting far more than the horror sequences, but to be completely honest, none of the actors is working at their full capacity here.

Ramírez is probably the worst, with some wooden deliveries that don't even seem to convince himself of their legitimacy. But Bana and Munn have a devilish lack of chemistry that rivals even the worst line readings from any child actor in the film in terms of the sheer effort it takes to slog through them. McHale delivers the best performance, simultaneously convincing as an acerbic comic relief and eager action hero, but his character mysteriously vanishes for the bulk of the second act in favor of more chomping melodrama between Sarchie and Mendoza.

Bless the casting director who came up with this, though.

But the biggest flaw in the film has been apparent in every section of my review - the writing. Although it's mostly adequate, there are too many moments that push suspension of disbelief too far including when Sarchie somehow fails to notice that his daughter's room is exhibiting the same phenomena of the cases he is investigating and his wife's subsequent failure to remove her daughter from said room.

There are an abundance of subplots that wither and die during the third act and a bizarre obsession with the music of The Doors that intimates at a super special metaphor but rather tests the boundaries of how invasively annoying one single act of symbolism can be.

Also this Jack in the Box gets more scenes than Joel McHale just because scary kids toys are a thing that happens in movies.

But on to the more important matters - is Deliver Us From Evil scary? In a word, yes. In more words, well kinda. It's all part of the dance, this elaborate contract between modern audiences and horror films. It'll make you want to cover your eyes when it's on surround sound in the big screen, but the scares are delicately choreographed to be exactly like every other scene in every other big horror movie.

When there's a mirror at the top of the screen and the hero bends down, you can guess what will happen when he stands up. It'll give you a shock for sure, but all that fear immediately evaporates once the credits roll. It's a boo machine, designed to give you your fair share of frights, but without an ounce more creativity than is necessary. This is all part of the studio attempts to play it safe, just like with the poster design.

It's just scary enough to get people talking, but not so terrifying as to get people thinking. Nobody but the most susceptible moviegoer will go home and have nightmares about Deliver Us From Evil because that's exactly what the producers want. They want to create a ride - an experience of popcorn terror that carefully avoids pushing the envelope to become a truly frightening flick.

And that's fine. It's nice that there are horror films that don't pull out all the stops to bury themselves deep under the skin of their audience. There's a market for that and it's a good way to bring less than hardcore fans into the genre. But I'm not going to pretend that I'll be revisiting Deliver Us From Evil anytime soon.

It's exactly what it needs to be, but what it needs to be is an uninteresting trifle with just enough spice to keep it going but too many flaws to support its lengthy running time.

TL;DR: Deliver Us From Evil is a typical possession flick, scary but not memorably so.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? I wouldn't if I were you. And as box office numbers are clearly indicating, people aren't.
Word Count: 1323


  1. OK, I haven't seen it yet, so maybe this comes off as a bit too hasty, but when this is like the most favorable review I heard--"sheer effort! [a] slog!" can go right on that awful poster--I think I'm not risking too much to already call it a real disappointment that this is Derrickson's follow-up to Sinister.

    But that does make this a good time to ask you either 1)if you're gonna review it, in which case I'll be patient or 2)what you thought of it. (I thought it was super-mega-ultra-great, but clearly reasonable minds have differed on this before.)

    P.S. those disc boxes are just the worst. I really missed the boat on a career in graphic design. Apparently two hands and the faintest fluency in Photoshop is all you need. Hell, maybe only one hand.

    1. I'm ashamed to admit I still haven't seen Sinister. It came at a time in my college life where I wasn't adequately prepared to spend money on things or to leave campus for any period of time. But I've heard so many good things about it, it's definitely on my list for catching up.
      And you could vomit onto a tablet and produce a better disc box than those - I propose an experiment.