* * 1/2
Dir. Scott Derrickson, 2014
I’ve been a fan of Derrickson since I saw his installment of the Hellraiser franchise which was far more interesting than being the direct to video sequel of a dead, perennially disappointing franchise suggests (but on it’s own, maybe only recommended to horror fanatics). The reason I’ve been a fan of Derrickson is that he and I seem to have the incredibly narrow interest of the intersection between exploitation films and religion. The extreme and the spiritual are actually far more common pairings than one would expect, especially in cinema; Paul Schrader and Abel Ferrera (I think in my Sinister review I said that Derrickson somehow has figured out how to have Ferrera’s career within mainstream Hollywood) being two relevant examples to Derrickson. For me, Derrickson is the kind of director who would make it easy to write a book about someday, as his oeuvre is already full of interesting, messy films that exhibit overarching thematic concerns.
I told myself I’d leave the Ferrera mentions to a minimum, but there’s a flashback sequence in this film that recalls the grainy, 16 or 8 MM exploitation films of New York grindhouse filmmakers like Ferrera and Larry Cohen (specifically, it recalled the disorienting effect of Doris Wishman’s disastrous oddity A Night to Dismember); it also helps that he sets this film in the South Bronx; along with Hell’s Kitchen, the place to be (or rather the place to be stuck in)in a that era. The flashback is one of many stylistic flourishes that Derrickson experiments with; they aren’t all effective, but it keeps the film interesting (my first and biggest rule for movies). There is a key scene that is repeated for background of the credits, where one of the possessed has created a collage. Derrickson is trying something similar here, throwing various tonal and stylistic things to the wall to see what sticks (to mix my metaphors).
The interest in film as spiritual/demonic object/portal continues from Sinister. And this is very much a thematic companion film; the happy side of the coin to Sinister. That film was the Mormon “homefront ad” from hell, an effectively depressing way of asking “Family, isn’t it about time?” as the protagonist’s obsessions with filmic violence (an autobiographical exploration for the filmmaker as father) opens his family up to demonic disintegration. Here, Eric Bana’s character, Sarchie (the kind of name NY cops in movies have), is a tough Bronx cop (and father) who finds himself caught up in some Exorcist 3 style serial demonic posessions/killer-type-thing that involves images; as in Sinister, a symbolic image provides a doorway to demonic spirits. To make maters more serious, Sarchie has been blessed with the gift of the discernment of spirits, a gift he’s previously used only find and pummel perps for stress relief (with his like-minded, mildly sadistic partner played by Joel McHale; he’s basically the same character here as in all of his work so far; there’s some plays at humor that fit well into the 70s exploitation tradition that, if viewed as a straight cop film, seem out of place). This gift further opens Sarchie, and his family, to contact from the other side. Unlike the father in Sinister, Sarchie, a lapsed Catholic, seeks help from Mendoza, an unorthodox “undercover” priest from the Hollywood school of unorthodox priests ( the idea of an undercover exorcism expert is pretty silly, but not as amazingly ridiculous as the SWAT style exorcist team in the magnificently ridiculous [REC] 2). With Mendoza’s help, instead of losing himself by further indulging in violence or playing with the demonic (like the father in Sinister), Sarchie instead finds spiritual (and religious) reconciliation.
I mentioned The Exorcist 3, which may be the most interesting film in that series, and like that film (in which an exorcism was famously tacked on), this is more of a mystery film (the teenagers exiting the theater were quite disappointed), and I mean that in both definitions: a procedural cop drama and film about spiritual redemption. Sarchie doesn’t go as deep into darkness as Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant (though Mendoza’s backstory is pretty dark) and the redemption aspect feels a bit more like plot than character development, but like of all of Derrickson’s films this film is so drenched in spirituality, not the token horror set dressing, that there are moments where, despite the mess that this film is tonally and character-wise, it feels earnest in it’s attempt to find spiritual connection.
Music serves as a key for epiphany in this film, and the use of The Doors, a very un-Catholic band, seems quite counter-intuitive. Like Fallen (or Battlestar Galactica), the use of a rock song to tie our characters to the world of spirits can be easily made fun of but I think there’s an interesting sentiment in those choices. Here, the use of the songs seem a bit too forced, like an early idea that was kept despite other changes in the film. Or perhaps Derrickson really feels a spiritual aspect to The Doors that I just don’t see, though is suggested by Oliver Stone in the opening of his film about the band and Jazz Coleman and Nigel Kennedy’s Doors Concerto. I should note here, as I realized I keep crediting Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman, Derrickson’s longtime, writing partner (It’s far easier but also problematic to assign too much credit/blame to directors). It may say something too that Boardman studied with Edward Albee, but that’s probably another chapter of what looks like my inevitable Derrickson book.
The most underdeveloped parts of this film is it’s Iraq war elements. The film, like The Exorcist, opens in the Iraq desert only this time 3 soldiers bring something home with them. This idea seems like it could have been it’s own film, perhaps a metaphor for PTSD, but that rich potential isn’t developed in this film. It’s not exactly the best film criticsm to say what a film should have been but I did feel a bit uncomfortable that PTSD was used as catalyst for plot and not really explored; it felt exploitative, and not in a way that I think the filmmakers intended. For the classic PTSD horror film see Bob Clark’s Deathdream, one of the great unseen films of the 1970s.