The best horror films aren’t the remakes of Japanese ghost stories, the torture porn franchises, or the ones in which someone knows what you did last summer. They aren’t the ones in which scream queens are stalked by zombies or masked psychos or homicidal dolls. They are the ones that illuminate the human condition and the spiritual nature of evil. And the best one of those I’ve seen in a long time – in fact, the best demonic possession movie I’ve seen in the four decades since The Exorcist – is Deliver Us from Evil, now out on DVD.
From the writer/director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, another well-done possession flick, Deliver Us from Evil is based on the real-life supernatural experiences of New York police sergeant Ralph Sarchie, played by Eric Bana. Sarchie grew up Catholic but abandoned religion at the age of twelve, so when he is confronted not only by a freaky mystery man committing shocking crimes, but also by auditory hallucinations linked to those crimes, he is in denial about the true nature of the darkness that he’s facing – until he meets Father Mendoza, a drug addict-turned priest, played by the criminally underappreciated actor Edgar Ramirez.
Sarchie initially would have agreed with Joseph Conrad, who wrote that “the belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” There was a time when Mendoza too didn’t believe in possession, until a personal experience opened his eyes to the nature of, as he calls it, “primary evil.” Now he ministers to the victims of demonic possession, and he and Sarchie end up working together.
Sarchie uncovers increasingly bizarre layers to the case, and baffling violence. “That’s the mystery of primary evil,” Mendoza explains. “Its destructiveness makes no sense. Not to us.”
While sharing drinks in a bar, the skeptic cop challenges the priest about his faith: “You see, Father, as we speak, every day out there, someone’s getting’ hurt, ripped off, murdered, raped. Where’s God when all that’s happening?”
“In the hearts of people like you who put a stop to it,” Mendoza replies evenly. “I mean, we can talk all night about the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good?” If there is no God, he says, if the world is just survival of the fittest, then why are men willing to lay down their lives for total strangers?
Kudos to writer/director Scott Derrickson for creating in Mendoza a priest who isn’t the usual one-dimensional stereotype but a fully realized – and deeply human – character. Mendoza doesn’t seem the saintly type, Sarchie observes, and Mendoza agrees. The priest has struggled with the evil inside himself, and hasn’t always won. But, as he says, “A saint is not a moral exemplar. A saint is a life-giver.” Mendoza confesses to Sarchie a moral failure in his past, after which he had “committed to walking the path of grace.”
Now, Mendoza tells him, it is Sarchie who must confess the darkness in his own soul before he can successfully grapple with the primary evil that they’re up against – otherwise the demon will exploit it. It is a profound acknowledgement: that we are all flawed and vulnerable to evil, and what empowers us to combat it is seeking God’s forgiveness for our sinful debt.
As you might expect, the film builds to a lengthy, intense exorcism scene. The demon targets and nearly conquers the vulnerable Father Mendoza before finally being cast out of its human host, played by Sean Harris, through the invocation of Jesus Christ. Harris does an incredible job of conveying, in one stricken facial expression, the horror of his character’s experience under possession, and his gratitude and relief for being rescued from it. It’s a masterfully directed and emotionally convincing climax.
Deliver Us from Evil offers not only plenty of chills and action sequences, but also the kind of human and spiritual insights that elevate this among the best examples of its genre.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/21/14)