The Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson returns to the realm of demonic possession with Deliver Us From Evil, a brooding exercise in theological terror that combines the tensest aspects of police procedurals with the darkest elements of supernatural horror. Inspired by the experiences of NYPD police officer-turned-demonologist Ralph Sarchie (whose non-fiction book bears the same title), it's an atmospheric bit of counterprogramming that serves as something of a grim oasis for horror fans starved by comic-book tentpoles and robot battle royales during the sweltering summer months.
When a frightening wave of violence sweeps through New York City, troubled cop Sarchie (Eric Bana) fails to find a rational explanation for the bizarre crimes. His eyes are opened to a frightening alternate reality, however, when renegade Jesuit priest Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez) convinces him that demonic possession may be to blame for the gruesome murders. Together, this unlikely duo wage a valiant supernatural struggle to rid the city of an otherworldly evil. But the closer they get to the source of this malevolent scourge, the more immediate the danger becomes to Sarchie, his pregnant wife Jen (Olivia Munn), and their young daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson).
Their roots running deep in the horror genre, Derrickson and frequent co-screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman built their careers on their ability to frighten and surprise. Steadily working their way up from the horror-sequel slums of Hellraiser: Inferno and Urban Legends: Final Cut to the remake ghetto of The Day the Earth Stood Still (which Boardman produced) to more original work, they've proven themselves to be rather proficient in populist horror fantasy, and here they seem to be drawing from a particularly bountiful bag of tricks that are used to surprising effect (despite their occasional familiarity). From spiders and snakes to bats and crucified cats, the duo pull out all the stops to create an air of unease early on, then steadily turn the screws in a series of ominous set pieces that gradually bring the sinister puzzle together.
Thanks to Derrickson's direction and Scott Kevan's cinematography, New York City is a winding labyrinth of filth and decay that seems to be crumbling under the oppressive weight of the evil all around. With most of the film seemingly lit by flashlights, Deliver Us From Evil is a shadowy, atmospheric affair that equates the common fear of the dark with the ice-cold fear of the unknown. Though equally effective at maintaining an air of dread, Derrickson's 2005 movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose suffered partly due to its surface similarities to The Exorcist. Here, by unleashing a similar source of evil on a major city, Derrickson and Boardman create something less familiar, and as a result, more powerful. This not only helps the viewer to remain involved during the first half of the film, in which the investigation unfolds, but also in the latter half, when we begin to learn more about Sarchie and his unlikely ally Mendoza, and how their past experiences both help and hinder them in their current struggle.
A newcomer to the horror genre, Eric Bana plays Sarchie's initial skepticism with a dismissive swagger. The higher the stakes get, however, the more interesting the character becomes, and Bana portrays his slow unraveling with a skill that plays equally well off the characters of his frustrated wife, his unflappable partner (an effectively cast Joel McHale), and, of course, the reverent yet flawed Mendoza. Likewise, BAFTA Award winner Sean Harris, whose simmering anger was a major source of tension in the stunning Red Riding trilogy, strikes a particularly menacing figure as the Marine veteran at the center of the investigation. But the most impressive character might be the one that's never seen at all -- the film's deeply unsettling sound design, which at times echoes Goblin's legendary score for Suspiria in its ability to summon a sense of profound discomfort.
All the while, Deliver Us From Evil harkens back to the grind-house era not only in its willingness to deliver the grisly goods, but also in its unapologetic attempts to scare us silly. Should your own skepticism, like Sarchie's, prevent you from giving into the rising terror, Derrickson's unrelenting approach may well chip away at your defenses until it reaches that one forgotten nerve that's been exposed since childhood.