Filmmaker Scott Derrickson was first introduced some 10 years ago to a New York cop who had undertaken what he calls "the Work" of investigating demonic possession and performing exorcisms. In the time since, Derrickson has been involved as both director and screenwriter with films such "The Exorcism of Emily Rose, "Sinister" and "Devil's Knot," exploring the unlikely intersection of true crime procedurals and otherworldly horror.
With the current "Deliver Us From Evil" — directed by Derrickson and co-written with Paul Harris Boardman based on a book by the officer, Ralph Sarchie, and Lisa Collier Cool — the story of a cop investigating the supernatural brings the filmmaker full circle. It was meeting Sarchie those years ago that helped launch this phase of his career, not least of all because it was Sarchie who gave him a photocopy of the then-out-of-print book that would be the basis for "Emily Rose."
"If you're talking about connecting horror to a true story, connecting it to true real events, that would start for me with Ralph," said Derrickson during a recent interview in Los Angeles. "It immediately struck me there was territory there that had not been worked over."
In "Deliver Us From Evil," Eric Bana plays Sarchie, who works in one of New York's roughest precincts. Along with his partner (Joel McHale) they enlist the help of a priest (Edgar Ramirez) to stop a series of supernatural events that trace back to an Iraq war veteran (Sean Harris). Olivia Munn also appears as Sarchie's wife, who falls into the path of his work as the story hurtles toward an intense exorcism scene set in a police interrogation room.
When Derrickson first came in to meet with producer Jerry Bruckheimer about the project some years back, he had at the time made only a direct-to-video sequel in the "Hellraiser" series, but his horror credentials were enough to get him in the door. Though super-producer Bruckheimer is personally no great fan of horror films — "It's not my favorite thing," he recently confessed — he saw the potential in Sarchie's story.
"He wanted to make 'Serpico' meets 'The Exorcist,'" said Derrickson of the basic pitch. "When I heard that I was like 'That's the coolest idea ever.'"
Originally from Colorado, Derrickson had minored in theology in college before moving on to film school at USC. With a particular love of movies such as "The Omen" and "The Shining," he long saw the horror genre as a place to explore the bigger mysteries in life.
"For me, there is a basic recognition of horror as the most open doorway where the intersection of philosophical and religious ideas can come tighter," he said with a casual but thoughtful demeanor that belies the intensity of his work. "This was a natural place for those things to go together and the best films in the genre have very cool philosophical or even religious ideas at their core."
Sarchie's work attracts its share of skeptics, and at first that included Sarchie himself. "It was something I wanted to stay away from," Sarchie said. Now retired from the New York Police Department, he doesn't take money for his ongoing work as a demonologist, a term he prefers to a less spiritual one such as "paranormal investigator."
"I didn't do this to seek publicity," he said of his work, "I serve God's will, and if that's what I feel he wants me to do, I'm going to do it and put every piece of myself into it."
When "Deliver Us From Evil" opened last week, reviews were decidedly mixed, though even some of the more negative notices acknowledged Derrickson's unique perspective with supernatural true crime. In two of the better reviews, critic Gary Goldstein in The Times called the final exorcism sequence "utterly mesmerizing" and the New York Times called the film "as taut and credible a movie involving demonic possession as you're likely to see."
It was recently announced that Derrickson will be directing an upcoming adaptation of the magic-tinged comic book story "Doctor Strange," as well as writing with C. Robert Cargill a film adaptation of a story from the sci-fi TV series "The Outer Limits." (The pair also wrote a sequel to their "Sinister" script.)
Even for someone like Bruckheimer, the experience of coming back around on Derrickson's "Deliver Us From Evil" has had its own small surprises.
"I'm telling you, I sit through it and he scares me every single time," said Bruckheimer. "I've seen the movie 50 times and I should know where the scares come, and he gets me every time. It's unbelievable, to see a movie that many times and it can still creep you out."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times