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Despite a series of jarring jump scares, "Deliver Us From Evil," the latest horror film from "Sinister" director Scott Derrickson, is little more than an ugly collection of tropes stolen from "The Exorcist" and "Seven." Ostensibly about the importance of family, and Christ-like man-saviors that will do anything to protect their children (and sometimes women), Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman fixate on the tacky, and tawdry, details of their "based on a true story" exorcism tale and never interrogate their characters' motives beyond stock posturing.
Many of "Deliver Us From Evil"s creative shortcomings result from Derrickson and Boardman's lazy articulation of their film's interest in spiritual doubt and penance. For example, Eric Bana's Sergeant Ralph Sarchie, a haunted member of the New York Police Department, simply knows when bad things are going on around him because he has an intuitive "radar"-like sixth sense. Sarchie's supernatural radar leads him and wise-ass partner Butler (Joel McHale) to a string of related domestic abuse cases. In each case, parents abuse their children while a mysterious string-bean of a man (Sean Harris) hovers nearby, painting over ominously legible graffiti written entirely in Latin. In each case, rebellious, Sarchie finds that hard-drinking Jesuit priest Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) is already on the case, waiting to nudge skeptical Sarchie toward a no-man-is-an-island acceptance of his limitations. These two tough (but fair!) men inevitably team up, but only after more children are threatened, pets are abused, and women are treated like accessories.
Derrickson and Boardman's film is more than just a sympathetic representation of Sarchie's paranoia. If this film were even semi-critical of Sarchie's testimony, it would acknowledge that, in any other context, Sarchie's version of events is "Taxi Driver"-levels of deranged. Instead, whenever he enters victims' homes, we see omnipresent crucifixes, a comically vampish Italian woman, a bloated corpse, creepy basement junk, and enough crumbling fixtures to make Bob Villa cry. The only recognizably human domestic-minded person in this film is Sarchie's wife Jen (Olivia Munn), but she's mostly sad that Sarchie's "never here, not even when you're home."
The world of "Deliver Us From Evil" needs a real man to clean up all the messes that demon-possesed, absent fathers have left behind. The film's casual chauvinism is established early on when Derrickson and Boardman make table-setting jokes at the expense of women met by Sarchie and Mendoza. First, there's the stranger that drunkenly hits on Mendoza at his regular bar: "You're sweaty" she gasps before Mendoza wearily remarks that drinking is just like medicine. Then there's Jane (Olivia Horton), the first possessed parent Sarchie stumbles across. When he arrests her, Jane mocks Mendoza by calling him a "specialissssst." Horton hisses this line with such unholy comic vigor that she sounds like a Peter Lorre-esque Gollum pull-string doll. But Jane isn't funny since she's obviously unwell. In this scene, before tragic events later humanize her in the worst way imaginable, Jane is little more than a scary punchline.
Admittedly, there's something inherently fascinating about a mediocre horror film that nakedly insists that women are plot devices, fathers always know best and dead kids are inherently the best way to an audience's heart. But Derrickson and Broadman spend so much time fetishistically focusing on grisly generic junk like an eviscerated cat and a possessed, rolly-polly toy owl that they wind up neglecting even the tropes of their shallow characters. It's not just that "Deliver Us From Evil" is blunt and kind of vile; it's so hysterically incompetent, and mindlessly excessive, that I found myself cheering on a demonic toy that benignly coos "Aa-oo-oo, aa-oo-oo." "Deliver Us From Evil" is scary, but only because it can't even make a possessed stuffed animal creepy.