The supernatural punch in director Scott Derrickson's Deliver Us From Evil may be minimal compared to his other forays into horror, but the gradual buildup pays off in a big, satisfying way. The mixture of Derrickson's striking visual style and command performances by stars Eric Bana and Édgar Ramírez aid a creepy story that's almost too good to be based on a true story. It may not be the end-all, be-all of horror films, but it's more than entertaining for its two-hour runtime.
The film follows Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie (Bana), a real-life NYPD veteran turned demonologist, who tries his best night after night to clean up the dank and dangerous streets. When his "radar" tips him off to a domestic dispute, he uncovers a powerful supernatural presence eating away at a select group of men. Derrickson builds the tension slowly until it eventually swallows up Sarchie's home life with his wife (Olivia Munn) and child. A fair amount of exposition is delivered by the time the tension reaches a fever pitch, lulling the audience into a false sense of security that allows the jump scares to hit their marks.
Perhaps the best part about Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman's script is the delicate balance of horror and plot. The film takes its time, giving the story and characters room to develop instead of simply jumping from scare to scare. The strange happenings with each victim, what happens in Sarchie's own home, and his growing friendship with priest Mendoza (Ramírez) are all given adequate time.
The performances by Bana and Ramírez add depth to characters that might seem thin in the hands of lesser actors. They have a natural chemistry, and their scenes together are easily the film's strongest element, making it a bit of a letdown that Deliver Us From Evil takes so long to actually have them work together. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Sarchie and Mendoza face their greatest test from the demon harassing them, culminating in an exorcism scene that viewers will be talking about long after the credits roll.
Unfortunately, not every actor shines. Munn is rather weak as Sarchie's overly religious wife, spending most of her scenes on the verge of tears, upset at his inability to give as much time and attention to his family as he does to his job. The familial subplot doesn't quite work, nor does it hold as much weight as the supernatural aspects, so it's easy enough to forget Munn's performance. The same goes for Joel McHale, an actor best known for comedic roles, who, despite his best efforts, appears out of place. Sean Harris largely makes up for an uneven supporting cast as one of the possessed victims who puts up a hell of a fight toward the end.
With Derrickson ramping up for Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange, Deliver Us From Evil is a solid example of everything that makes him the right choice. He has an innate ability to build tension, and when he takes it all the way into pure horror, it's easy for viewers to be right there with him, as terrified as his characters are. While the film's first half -- full of jump scares and exposition -- might deter some viewers, Derrickson more than makes up for it in the second hour, culminating in a literal glass-shattering exorcism scene that clocks in at roughly 15 minutes.
Setting is key for a horror film, and the film makes the Bronx humid and treacherous, the perfect urban breeding ground for supernatural terror. It's also refreshing to see a horror film rely on practical effects in lieu of less-convincing CG to bring its scariest moments to life. While the film's budget constraints may be the reason for this, it's a welcome choice and one that pays serious dividends.
Deliver Us From Evil works as a horror-thriller, but it's far from perfect. With a slow first half and some uneven performances and character work beyond its leads, it feels a bit rough around the edges. But with the horror coming on full force in the second half and a director clearly in control of his craft, the overall experience is enjoyable. With few choices over the holiday weekend, Deliver Us From Evil provides enough scares to delight horror fans and possibly to make some of the more religious members of the audience want to cleanse themselves by attending church shortly after watching.
Deliver Us From Evil opens today in theaters nationwide.