The horror genre is no stranger to self-awareness and self-parody. The “Scary Movie” spoof series has five iterations, and smarter self-referential fare like the “Scream” quadrilogy, “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” and “The Cabin in the Woods” have extensively catalogued and commented on the genre’s tricks and tropes.
But exorcism thriller “Deliver Us From Evil” is a different kind of meta, a demon-possession flick that seems possessed itself: a compelling domestic drama about the repercussions of violence that’s been taken over and controlled by a dumb, pointless startle-a-thon.
A truly great cast of Eric Bana, Olivia Munn, Joel McHale, Edgar Ramirez, Sean Harris, and Olivia Horton collectively slum it here. Director Scott Derrickson previously convinced former A-listers like Laura Linney and Ethan Hawke to star in his horror flicks (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister,” respectively); watching “Deliver,” it’s actually not hard to see how he managed to do so. The film, to its credit, swings for the fences with impressive performances, well-developed characters, and unusual iconography.
For most of its running time, it’s actually possible to forget you’re watching a film that’s going to end in a priest yelling at some poor sap with blood and body goop oozing from his pores for ten minutes straight. Then that inevitable climax comes around, and the horror elements take over the film once again. Derrickson can’t exorcise his film of formula.
A tacky prologue in Iraq precedes a pair of police investigations in the Bronx, one routine, the other bizarre. Partners Sarchie (Bana) and Butler (McHale) look into a domestic-assault case and a strange incident at a zoo where a mother (Horton) drowns her baby in full view of the other visitors.
Bana is perfectly adequate as the earnest straight man, while McHale wins our hearts as the unlikeliest of cops, a tatted-up snark machine whose police uniform consists of Alice Cooper t-shirts and Red Sox caps (thus daring the people he’s vowed to serve and protect to beat him up). He makes even the playground joke of humming and snapping the “Addams Family” theme song in front of a spooky house the film’s comic highlight.
It turns out the two acts of aggression under investigation are related — a connection that takes the officers to a lot of creepy corners of a handsomely worn, all-brick-and-grime South Bronx to find the guy who seems to carry and conceal death all over the borough. Eventually, Sarchie meets Father Mendoza (Ramirez), a hip-as-hell priest who drinks, smokes, and prefers leather jackets to the clerical collar.
If nothing else, Bana should at least be commended for sparking chemistry with all three of his co-leads. He and McHale share an easy, lived-in camaraderie, and Sarchie’s bromance with Father Mendoza makes the hokey demonic possession stuff go down easier, and turns a later confession of transgression surprisingly affecting.
But Bana and Munn, who deserves much better than the throwaway concerned-mother role that she gets here, nearly remake “Deliver” into a powerful parable about the personality-warping guilt and alienation that violence can engender. Sarchie’s no ideal family man, and if Munn’s character is a bit of a wet blanket, she’s also warm and cold in just the right degree at just the right moments.
Their marriage feels absolutely real in that their arguments and complaints feel like they’ve been had several times before, and their hidden disappointment at its potential failure is rooted in deep love. (Someone hire these two as a couple for a real movie, stat.)
The film’s other star is the host of unsettling imagery Derrickson creates. Strangely, there’s a lot of spooky animal imagery; none of it winds up particularly relevant to the story, but it’s effectively creepy regardless. There’s also a lot of blood, but the body horror is laudably less about gross-outs than featuring self-destructive behavior that’s almost imaginable to feel, like chewing off a chunk of one’s arm or compulsively scratching the floor until the fingernails are blunted down to seashell shards.
As the demon-possessed, Harris and Horton provide the film’s best performances, fearsomely disquieting as feral beasts who walk on all fours and kill with their teeth, and whose victims potentially include Sarchie’s wife and young daughter.
And yet for all its embarrassment of riches, “Deliver” never manages to transcend its bloody, screechy, pulpy origins. That makes the film both a horror tale and a tragedy.