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Three thoughts came to mind after watching Deliver Us from Evil, the latest horror film based on a nonfiction book.
First thought: It is not good to be alone—especially on nights when I return to an empty apartment still quivering with mental visuals of demonic possession, splitting foreheads, and, in one curdling scene, self-cannibalism. Second: Neither is it good to be greeted by a hungry, yowling cat, so soon after seeing a mummified, crucified, gutted tabby on a 70-foot-wide screen. Lastly: Demons are real. But somehow, they’re not so terrifying when their theatrical antics make their presence so tangible.
If the above-mentioned snippets from Deliver Us from Evil have you quaking, good—that’s what director and screenwriter Scott Derrickson wants. He’s a vocal Christian and Biola University alumnus who defends horror as “a genre that explores certain truth, because it’s about confronting and reckoning fear.” Fear, he says, is “the most powerful human emotion, which probably drives more behavior than any other singular emotions.”
Deliver Us from Evil will make you familiar with fear. The movie starts in an Iraqi desert with three U.S. Marines creeping down an underground chamber. They scream. The scene then cuts to the South Bronx of New York City, where a series of strange things happen: A mother (Olivia Horton) suddenly goes crazy in the Bronx Zoo and tosses her baby into the lion’s den. An immigrant family takes turns keeping watch in the living room each night, because they claim their house is possessed. Their basement later dumps out a gut-bursting corpse of an ex-U.S. Marine.
More bizarre, linked cases arise, all of which NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) investigates with his wisecracking partner Butler (Joel McHale). A fallen Catholic, Sarchie’s initial skepticism peels away to a raw conviction that something very, very evil is working. He finds a spiritual partner in Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), a faith-tested Latino Jesuit priest who specializes in demonology.
Beware of both the disturbing and the gimmicky. Some parts of the film resort to cheap scare tactics designed mostly to make the audience jump. And for those looking for a few fun jolts on a Friday night, Deliver Us from Evil does the job. But it’s also a dark, thought-provoking work with surprisingly complex characters, especially that of the priest. Ramirez brings to life with convincing intensity a troubled clergyman whose hands perform both the profane and the divine. “There are two types of evil in this life, Officer Sarchie,” Father Joe says. “Secondary evil, the evil that men do. And primary evil, which is something else entirely.”
Primary evil is Derrickson’s artistic obsession. Several of his films deal with themes of demons and satanic rituals, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno, and Sinister. Derrickson likes to call his creative choice “the genre of non-denial,” because horror film “forces you to put yourself in the pathway of things that frighten you.”
Some of the actors apparently no longer deny, especially after watching a clip from Derrickson’s VHS collection of real-life exorcisms. Olivia Munn, who plays Sarchie’s wife, Jen, told me she entered her role as a non-believer, but now she realizes “it’s narrow-minded to think things only exist to your fingertips.” Munn, who said she was raised Christian but stopped believing as an adult, echoes several other actors like Bana and Ramirez who, after watching the nonfictional video clip, lost many nights of sleep. Their conclusion: “Wow. There are some things you simply cannot explain or understand”—and they leave it at that.
But such is the limit of cinema. Deliver Us from Evil may introduce some credibility to the existence of the spiritual realm, particularly since many supernatural elements of the movie are apparently based on true accounts of the real Ralph Sarchie. Yet knowing the devil is real because one of his minions is up to mischief does not equal actually knowing what the devil is and does, or how to defeat him. Visible demonic possession is certainly scary, but it can also distract from the other horrors that we take home with us after the credits: the invisible, shrewder evil that plants disbelief, guilt, envy, worry, pride, and other devil crafts aimed at blinding us to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.