Review: ‘Deliver Us From Evil’ offers up a grimy real-world take on supernatural horror

So, basically, it's “CSI: 666.”

Makes sense. Jerry Bruckheimer doesn't really do horror films. When you look back at his long and storied career as a producer, you see several recurring things, but horror seems like it's never really been part of his cinematic diet. I guess you could argue that some of the “Pirates” movies have some creepy elements, but those films are ultimately family adventure movies with a healthy dose of comedy thrown in.

So what attracted him to the story of Detective Ralph Sarchie, a real-life NYC officer who gets involved in a case that subjects him to some insane supernatural attention? Hard to tell, but the finished film, directed by Scott Derrickson and adapted from Sarchie's non-fiction book by Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, plays like a police procedural first and foremost. It's a dark and grimy film, and while I think it's juggling a whole lot of cliches, there is something genuinely admirable about the way it tells this story and the way it handles the supernatural onscreen.

Sarchie (Eric Bana) and his partner Butler (Joel McHale) are decorated NYPD detectives, and Sarchie's a guy who has an uncanny knack for catching the most dangerous calls. That's fine by Butler, an adrenaline junkie, but it's non-stop stress for Sarchie's wife Jen (Olivia Munn) and his daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson). One night, Sarchie and Butler catch a domestic disturbance call that leads them to arrest a former marine (Chris Coy). They also end up investigating a bizarre incident at a zoo where a woman named Jane (Olivia Horton) ended up throwing her infant into a lion's habitat. A third call leads them to a home where an immigrant family believes a haunting is taking place in their basement. Those three seemingly-unrelated incidents seem to awaken something in Sarchie, drawing him into the orbit of a hard-drinking chain-smoking Jesuit priest named Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez).

I like the way the film unfolds as a procedural. While Derrickson certainly starts dropping clues early on about the nature of the threat that Sarchie is facing, the film is structured as an investigation. Sarchie chips away at the facts in the case, slowly making sense out of what seems like an impossible situation. Bana and McHale have an easy macho chemistry, and I've gotta give Derrickson credit for casting McHale in a role that is unlike anything we've seen him do before. When I met him in April, I was struck by the fact that he's just over eight feet tall, an imposing figure, and he needs to be to keep up with Bana, who has never been more ripped than he is here. His arms are practically Popeye arms at this point. They're a credible presence as these badass cops.

Derrickson has an interesting approach to how he handles the supernatural. It rarely feels like a special effect. He tries to ground it, even once things start to get ugly. Bana is an important part of that. Sarchie's a lapsed Catholic, and he's acutely uncomfortable with the idea that anything he's investigating is beyond the simple evil that men do to one another. He has a dark worldview, earned through the time he's spent in “the sewer,” as he calls his job. We see just how awful and bleak things are, and Bana does strong work showing us what sort of toll this has taken on Sarchie overall. Munn doesn't have a lot to do as his wife, but she does her best with the role, and she's able to etch her character well with jus a few minutes of screen time.

Edgar Ramirez is also very strong in his work as Mendoza, the only one who seems to fully understand what it is that Sarchie's going through, and he gives the character an understated sense of melancholy. Once Sarchie begins to believe, he and Mendoza have to work together, and they have some of the best moments in the film together, simple dialogue scenes in which they challenge each other on what they believe. I know Derrickson a little bit, enough to know that he is a man of faith himself, and one of the reasons I like “Deliver Us From Evil” is that it is not simply playing this stuff for cheap scares. The idea of why there is evil in the world and why God lets people suffer… those are some of the big questions, and the film tries to treat the material seriously.

I paid to see the film at a Tuesday midnight screening in the San Fernando Valley, and I've gotten used to what crowd you'll see at a horror film when it plays a pre-opening midnight. The crowds tend to be younger and Hispanic, and depending on which part of the Valley you go to, wildly rowdy. As someone who has spent the last 14 years surrounded by the Latin American community of LA, and who lives in a predominantly South American household, I think it's safe to say that Catholicism is a big part of this community, and they have an active belief in the demonic. While most of the horror films I've seen with these audiences are greeted by cheers and laughs and screams and all sorts of vocal feedback, the crowd last night was largely quiet, a testament to the way Derrickson makes the film feel so grim and real-world. By the time the film starts to deal with exorcism, I saw a few walk-outs, including one couple where the girl was borderline hysterical, really upset by what they were watching. I don't think the film is particularly explicit, but it is not playing the supernatural for cheap kicks. Because it never flinches, there is an ugliness that is hard to shake. “Deliver Us From Evil” isn't an easy across the board mainstream film like “The Conjuring,” but it demonstrates a willingness to play rough that makes it stick, and I think it should please horror fans who like their material served without irony.

“Deliver Us From Evil” opens today in theaters everywhere.