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The devil doesn't deliver enough scares in 'Deliver Us From Evil'

Eric Bana in "Deliver Us From Evil"
Eric Bana in "Deliver Us From Evil"
Screen Gems

Deliver Us From Evil

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The horror movie “Deliver Us From Evil” came in third at the box office this weekend with a so-so showing of just under $10 million, according to the early reports. The 32% approval rating from the critical consensus at RottenTomatoes.com didn’t help either. Still, there have been far worse horror movies that prevailed on their opening weekend. Why did this satanic thriller come up short?

One could argue simply that the “Transformers” juggernaut was too big to overcome, particularly during the July 4 holiday weekend with audiences in the mood for something rousing. And Melissa McCarthy is a big star, and even her poorly reviewed “Tammy” came in a strong second, making $32 million in just five days. But perhaps there is something else that marred “Deliver Us From Evil” from prevailing more. And it has more to do with its subject matter and main villain.

As horror goes, “Deliver Us From Evil” does have many things going for it. Scott Derrickson’s direction is assured and atmospheric. The cast is good, particularly lead Eric Bana and Joel McHale in his sharply snarky supporting role. And its true story origins give it a halo of believability most horror lacks. Its final set piece goes for broke too, and is very tense. With all this going for it, the story of an actual catalogued demonic possession should be terrifying, right?

But it's not, and that may have something to do with the fact that this kind of devil possession movie plays awfully familiar in this day and age. It really doesn't do much different than “The Exorcist” did back in 1973 (http://imdb.to/1oczDzS). And so many tricks from that classic horror film are played right out the window here. The guttural voices, the lascivious tongue flicking, the body malformations, the carved words on flesh – they’re all duplicated. It's devil by rote. Been there, excised that.

Possession movies also need to make audiences care about those inhabited by the devil. In “Deliver Us From Evil”, the demonic torment of Bana and his family is mostly incidental. The real victims here are the three Iraq War vets returning to a far greater hell than any VA hospital’s waiting list. They unleashed something in a cave and it’s followed them back. But frankly, we never get to know any of the three soldiers as people.

Thus, we have little investment in their problems with the demonic. One of the reasons that “The Exorcist” worked so brilliantly was due to the hour we got to know Regan (Linda Blair) before she was possessed. We weren’t sure why she was acting up, but the believability of this young girl’s struggle, along with that of her forlorn mother (Ellen Burstyn), drew us in and drew us to her side.

Sarchi starts being victimized by this demon too. He starts hearing lots of Doors tunes (almost laughable really), having visions, etc. And then the demon goes after his daughter. But why is he wasting time with bystanders? He's all over the map, corrupting vets, swaying zoo animals, badgering the lead detective and his kid. A singularly focused villain would be better here. Heck, the Devil might as well have just gotten to Frank Underwood’s brownstone in “House of Cards” and let the politico do all the heavy lifting for him.

And when a demon is merely a monstrous bogeyman, like he is here in "Deliver Us From Evil", it plays one-dimensionally. And it's not even accurate if you're going by the stories in the Bible. In 'The Book', the Devil is portrayed as a con artist with an eloquent tongue. He's able to cleverly coerce Eve into taking a bite of that apple and even has a long conversation with a hungry Christ about turning rocks into bread. The Devil, if he does exist, seems to be more like someone doing his damndest to convince everyone that he’s the good guy. That would make for a more interesting antagonist here.

Scott Derrickson struck horror gold before with “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, which had a superbly sympathetic central performance by Jennifer Carpenter, and with “Sinister”, one of the best horror movies of 2012 (http://imdb.to/1xCK7PX). Derrickson has a lot of talent that would benefit other types of horror tales that he hasn’t told before. Or if he is going to tell another possession tale, even one based on a true story, it’s got to find fresher ways to spook us and be truly terrifying. Cats sacrificed on crucifixes are gross and exploitive, not particularly scary, and certainly not worthy of his talent.

Heaven knows there are ways to breathe life into even the most horror sub-genres. Look at the fresh things done with zombies in the last decade or so with the likes of “28 Days Later”, “Shaun of the Dead”, “Zombieland”, and “The Walking Dead”. Here’s hoping that the next movie about the Devil is possessed more by cleverness than by hoary clichés.