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Scott Derrickson knows how to approach horror. Prior to “Deliver Us From Evil” (2014), he directed acclaimed favorites “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005) and “Sinister” (2012). Both of those films disturbed me with their off-putting imagery and amplified tension (Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as the twisting, contorting Emily Rose gave me many sleepless nights as a teen). While “Deliver Us From Evil” didn’t quite pack the same punch for me, I still found it to be an effective and atmospheric thriller (even if a little too purposefully gritty).
Derrickson also directed “Urban Legends: Final Cut,” “Sinister 2,” Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” and supposedly the upcoming “Labyrinth” sequel. Before I list

Derrickson’s entire catalogue, let’s explore how “Deliver Us From Evil” simultaneously stands out from and mimics other possession films. Ultimately, does it really offer anything new for the viewer?

Nods and Cliches

Film critic Shawn Edwards described “Deliver Us From Evil” as “The Exorcist Meets Se7en,” which is quite fitting. Very loosely based on a recount of true events, DUFE (Deliver Us From Evil) is gritty cop-detective film meets classic possession horror. Let’s start with some similarities to other possession films:

Like “The Exorcist,” we open with the desert (specifically Iraq) – a classic place for characters to unearth something that’s not meant to be found. We see spiders, bats, and a snake (omens?) approaching three soldiers as they march in the dark. The men stumble upon an underground cavern and smell something foul (my guess is sulfur – typically used in possession films to signal that a demonic presence is near). One of the soldiers, Santino, is fixated on Latin inscriptions on the wall, and the body camera we’re seeing through blacks out. Three years later, the viewer is now in the Bronx, where it’s apparently always raining. I picture Derrickson as Kylo Ren shouting “More!” on set when adding rain to this movie.
The film’s protagonist, officer Ralph Sarchie, is called to the Bronx Zoo after a woman throws her toddler into a moat surrounding the lion enclosure. The woman, Jane, is the first obviously possessed character in the film, and one can’t help but draw comparisons to Regan MacNeil from “The Exorcist.” Even the haircut is similar. Later in the film, when Sarchie and Father Mendoza visit Jane at an institution, she exhibits by-the-numbers possession behavior. Like Regan, she speaks in tongues and various languages. Her connection to the soldier Santino, and how there are multiple people being possessed at once, reminds me of “The Exorcist III” (“My name is Legion, for we are many”). “The Evil Dead” also comes to mind (“Join us!”). We don’t know how the world of demons works, but Jane is clearly acting as a messenger, servant, or lower caste demon for Santino, the ringleader.

Sarchie later visits a family experiencing paranormal activity in their home. Candles go out, light bulbs flicker, and crosses fall off the wall – typical haunted house stuff. The good thing about this scene is that it propels the plot – we discover that the painters who were working in the family’s basement are the three soldiers from Iraq (they started a painting business after returning). “The evil thing is in the basement”/“Don’t go down there!” is definitely a worn cliche, though. Sarchie’s flashlight going out is also an “of course that’s going to happen” moment. But the big surprise is the discovery of a decomposing Griggs, one of the soldiers. Griggs’ ID leads Sarchie to his apartment, where he finds photos of Griggs with Jane and fellow soldiers Santino and Jimmy. Basically, everyone getting possessed is connected.

Sarchie discovers that each soldier replicated in their homes and various locations the pictograph message discovered in Iraq. Father Mendoza reveals that the pictograph acts as a doorway for the demon to possess others. This idea of a doorway or portal for evil has been explored in countless horror flicks (“Demons,” “Poltergeist,” “Witchboard,” etc).
As the film progresses, Sarchie’s daughter becomes a target for demonic activity. We get the classic lights flickering, strange noises, and her stuffed owl moving on its own. It’s worth noting that Sarchie’s daughter is played by the wonderful Lulu Wilson. At 15, she already has several horror credits to her name, including “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Annabelle: Creation,” and Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Officer Sarchie = Damien Karras?

I couldn’t help but draw a few comparisons between Sarchie and Father Damien Karras from “The Exorcist.” Both have seen some horrible things, and they almost let their emotions destroy them (in Karras’ case, evil won). Both characters let their negativity and personal lives draw the demonic forces closer to them. It’s emphasized in DUFE that this negativity surrounding Sarchie is like an infection. The entire city is stained with darkness, death, and misery. Sarchie’s opening scene is finding a dead infant in an alley. So already we see that in his line of work, he’s exposed to the absolute worst of humanity. (I like the shaky camerawork as Sarchie walks away from the scene. We sense his rage.) Another similarity is their deep connection to their families (all Karras has is his mother). The demons use these connections against them, either through voice or kidnapping, as we later see in DUFE.

What Stands Out

Nods and cliches aside, DUFE offers a refreshing take on certain characters and locations, as well as the final inevitable exorcism:

Mendoza: Actor Edgar Ramirez gives a great performance as Father Mendoza. I think the first film I saw him in was “Domino” alongside Keira Knightley. His depiction of Mendoza, the priest who aids Sarchie in his case, really stands out from other typical priest characters. He hits the punching bag and takes an evening run to blow off steam. He grabs a shot at a bar and is flirted with almost immediately, but politely turns down the invitation. When he meets up with Sarchie, he smokes. And unlike Karras from “The Exorcist,” Mendoza is completely in tune with his emotions. He reminds me more of The Exorcist’s Father Merrin in terms of being strong-willed and at peace. I like his explanation of secondary evil, coming from humans – and primary evil, which is something else entirely. He encourages Sarchie to confront his sins so he’ll be ready to fight Santino. But Mendoza himself is not without sin, as it’s revealed he had a drug-fueled past, among other things.

The Zoo: The Bronx Zoo filmed at night is totally creepy and it’s the perfect location for Sarchie to first encounter Jane and Santino. There’s great footage of the animals in the zoo, pacing and restless. I thought it was interesting how Santino could communicate with and influence the lions at the zoo. In most horror movies, the animal is a black cat or some other stereotype, so the use of lions was interesting (but they’re apex predators, so there’s already a suggestion of danger. It also worked for the zoo setting).

Butler: Actor Joel McHale’s role as Butler, Sarchie’s partner, added some much needed sass and comedic relief. Unfortunately, he is also a sacrificial lamb. But in a movie this gloomy, it’s almost inevitable that innocent blood will be spilt. I think Butler’s death is also a turning point for Sarchie and it fuels him to finish the case.

The Doors: References to The Doors and their music throughout was an interesting choice. (I haven’t heard “People Are Strange” in a horror film since “The Lost Boys.”) The latin pictograph acts as a doorway for possession, so the band’s lyrics are clearly a nod to that. Santino often uses their lyrics to communicate: “Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.”

The Exorcism: The six-stage Hollywood budget exorcism performed by Mendoza and Sarchie features elements from every possession film, but I like that it’s drawn out. It shows you that an exorcism isn’t meant to be easy and it could take hours, maybe even days, for the demon to leave. It’s not as simple as using a cross. There’s a repetition of the holy word and the power of faith against the malevolent force. Santino exhibits superhuman strength, hisses, crudely wags his tongue, and lays on some heavy theatrics – all meant to be distractions to stop Mendoza and Sarchie from completing the ritual. I like that Mendoza takes us through each of the stages, almost like it’s a tutorial. I’d be afraid to put my face that close to the possessed, but Mendoza gets up nice and close and even whispers in its ear. Mendoza’s neck is exposed, and it’s clearly an opportunity for Santino to bite him, but we get none of that. I was surprised that Mendoza almost fell for the demon’s lies. I figured Sarchie would have been more likely to cave since his family is in danger, but he pulls Mendoza out of the mind-trap. When Mendoza repeatedly tells the demon “Silence,” it’s comical how Santino just huffs, as if slightly resigned. The demon is exorcized, and surprisingly, even after all that trauma and forehead-splitting, Santino lives. What’s maybe a bit difficult to believe is that Santino remembers exactly where Sarchie’s wife and daughter are being kept. It seems inconsistent throughout the many possession films whether the victim remembers everything that happened. It usually seems like the person is just “asleep” with no recollection. Although, in “Evil Dead” (2013), it’s suggested the character Mia remembers everything that took place while she was possessed by a Kandarian demon.

Closing Thoughts

DUFE received mixed to negative critical reviews, mostly because it relies heavily on cliches, tropes, and mythologies from other possession films. I do like that we get a cop and a priest working together. The overuse of rain/bad weather to emphasize mood is a little ridiculous though. As we see in films like “Midsommar,” daylight can be just as scary. I guess since we’re following Sarchie during his night shift, we don’t get much of a chance to see the sun.

Would I recommend adding DUFE to your watch list? I think so, especially if you’re part of the niche audience that enjoys possession horror. There are some solid performances from Eric Bana and Edgar Ramirez, and a great supporting cast with Sean Harris, Olivia Munn, and Joel McHale. But go into DUFE knowing that it relies heavily on what you already know from other possession films.

Bret Laurie

Bret Laurie

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Bret Laurie is an editor, writer, and longtime horror fan living in Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in English at Worcester State University and currently has six years of editing and social media marketing experience.

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