Scenic artists like you can often help good horror films stand apart from their less-than-palatable counterparts. As an audience, we know all the tricks a filmmaker uses to scare us: tense music, a vulnerable child, a cat that pops out of nowhere, etc. No shortage of those in Deliver Us From Evil. But your new film also straddles genres: it's a supernatural thriller and a gritty detective story. The horror half will win out in the marketing campaign, but for my money it's your work that makes this a real winner: you successfully create an atmosphere that feels like Se7en meets The Exorcist.
Too bad they had to make the villain a painter, eh?
Or maybe not, since it gave you the juiciest scenes to work on. Like the early zoo sequence, when NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie investigates an attempted murder, and there's a potential witness creeping around the grounds at night. He's carrying a paint roller and, when about to be questioned, disappears casually into the lion's den (which is a nice upgrade from the aforementioned cat scare--though we get those as well, plus dogs, and rats, and fish, etc). It's soon revealed that our mystery man is painting, and then covering over, ancient symbols around the city that are conjuring demons.
Since this film is "inspired by true accounts",there was probably a painter, once, who painted something weird, and then something weird happened. You wouldn't know anything about that though, would you?
Actually, don't answer that. The less I know, the better. Which is the same philosophy I always take with me to the movies. In this case, I only knew about the headliners: Eric Bana in the lead and Édgar Ramirez as an "undercover" Jesuit priest. Ramirez has a lot of goodwill with me after his hypnotizing performance in Carlos, and I still find Bana appealing as an actor (even in his less impressive work). The biggest surprise here was seeing Community's Jeff Winger, a.k.a. Joel McHale, as Bana's adrenaline junkie partner. He seems like the most obvious "creative flourish" to this apparently true story, and a rather cliched addition to the film's canvas, especially with the very literal homage to Se7en, with each deadly sin tattooed on his neck.
Though director Scott Derrickson, who most recently helmed Sinister and wrote Devil's Knot, is less interested in doing something new than doing something well. I can't fault him for that. This film does have a wonderful sense of self and scale (with all those beautiful establishing shots of New York). Beautiful, too, is the rich black cinematography and creative set design.
The grungy rooms you had to paint and re-paint give the proper sense of lived-in verisimilitude. The attention to detail is extremely useful until the third act, which is essentially one long by-the-book exorcism. At that point, all the subtlety you and the rest of the filmmakers (literally) goes flying out the window.