Sinister lighting, innocent child, creepy closet full of demons... check, check, and check!
I’ve always appreciated horror as a genre full of little experiments. If a director’s goal is to scare, disturb, or unsettle the audience, she has to manufacture a Rube Goldberg-like system of tense silences and jump scares to find success.
One of the most exciting sources of horror fodder is the mythology of demonic possession, although—in my opinion—no film has succeeded in its depiction of demons since The Exorcist in 1973. Why has every demon movie since The Exorcist been so boring and hackneyed? If we’ve outgrown the whole teen-girl-possessed-by-the-devil trope, what can we explore that’s more interesting and truly terrifying?
Demonic possession stories on film began with that groundbreaking, shocking moment where Regan sticks a crucifix in her vagina in The Exorcist. But creativity in the genre has dissipated since—demonic possession films have suffered from a lack of originality, especially in regards to gender roles. In The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, The Possession, and Sinister, the vessel chosen by each masculine-gendered demon is a young, attractive woman. When a demon possesses a girl, movies often run through checklist of behaviors: body contortions, for example, and a new, uncharacteristic penchant for foul, sexual language. It’s easy to see what draws tired, uncreative artists and audiences to films like this: the promise of seeing a virginal, innocent girl manipulated into something monstrous. Demonic possession films in the last decade don’t tend to victimize able-bodied men—instead, heroic men are usually the characters who have to look inside themselves, forgive their own faults, and avenge the female victim.
The most recent addition to the litany of demonic possession films is Deliver Us From Evil, which opened this month. It’s not a well-made movie, although its cast is more impressive than your average summer throwaway horror flick. Eric Bana gives his most boring performance ever as Bronx cop Ralph Sarchie, but he’s supported by a believable Olivia Munn as Sarchie’s wife, Jen, and a near-sociopathic Joel McHale as a police officer who wears a backwards baseball cap.
Major spoilers ahead, because this film is not worth seeing.
After an hour spent meandering around the Bronx, the film finally centers on the action duo of Ralph Sarchie, the classic conflicted atheist cop, and Mendoza (Édgar Ramírez), the chain-smoking, also-conflicted Jesuit priest. Before performing the exorcism, Mendoza confesses to Sarchie that he impregnated a woman while “wearing the cloth,” and though he begged her to reconsider, she aborted the fetus. Sarchie confesses to beating a child-molestation suspect to death with his bare hands. Though both men seem to think they have experienced brushes with evil, they don’t believe their actions were a result of being possessed by a demon. Jane (Olivia Horton), a woman who throws her toddler into a lion exhibit at the Bronx zoo, however, definitely does this because the devil is inside her.
There are, interestingly, three men in the film possessed by demons, but one takes himself out of the running by drinking paint thinner. Another viciously attacks his wife (Sarchie refers to this guy as “the wife-beater”) and the third doesn’t seem to do anything other than hiss at people, talk to animals, and eventually stab Joel McHale. In fact, almost every player in the story is a man, and the effect is confusing. Do women not have a place in stories about demons, unless they’re being victimized? Simon Abrams writes in his one-star review of the film, “The world of Deliver Us From Evil needs a real man to clean up all the messes that demon-possesed, absent fathers have left behind.” He writes that Deliver Us From Evil is “fascinating” as it “nakedly insists that women are plot devices.” When the priest Mendoza attempts to explain the nature of evil to Sarchie, even he seems confused with what behaviors are “secondary evil,” which he defines as the things men (not women) do to each other, or “primary evil,” which is enacted on earth by Satan or his demons. The film depicts man-on-man violence as either righteous or excusable. Meanwhile, man-on-woman violence is not the fault of the man, necessarily, because it’s usually caused by a demon.
The male heroes in the film are given leeway enough to be both sinful and untouched by demons—though they’re made from cobbled-together stereotypes, they’re reasonably complex characters. Meanwhile, the women in the film are either completely oblivious to conflict (Jen) or immediately succumb to the devil (Jane). While the boys battle the demons and prevent the end of the world, Jen and her daughter Christina (Lulu Wilson) are apparently stuck in a time-warp between getting ready for bed, heading to church, and coming home from Christina’s soccer games. They’re not aware of what Sarchie deals with every day; in fact, their naivete becomes comically ridiculous as the demons in Sarchie’s life gain traction and volume. In one scene, Sarchie drinks a beer on his couch after being attacked from the ceiling by a deranged demon-possessed guy in his underwear, and his wife Jen pleads with him to spend more time at home. On the other hand, Jane, after being arrested for attempting to kill her child, is later shown in some kind of psychiatric prison, where she bites Sarchie’s arm and recites a bunch of Jim Morrison lyrics. While Sarchie runs around trying to figure out what we’ve known all along (everyone’s problems are due to demon possession), Jane somehow coerces the psychiatric facility’s only staff member into her cell, does something off-screen that causes blood to pool around him, and crawls out of her cell with the old-fashioned iron key ring in her mouth.
The next time we see Jane (have you mixed her up with Jen yet?), she throws herself out of a building and onto the hood of Sarchie’s car. There’s no drama to her suicide because we don’t know anything about her. As Sarchie stares at Jen’s contorted body, he gets a phone call from a demon and gasps, “Are you in my house?” Sarchie then leaves woman-victim number one lying in the street to go save woman-victims numbers two and three!
It turns out the demon has locked Sarchie’s wife and daughter in a dumpster for unclear reasons. After a long, drawn-out exorcism scene, Sarchie rescues his family in slow motion. The final scene in the film gives us the christening of Sarchie’s new baby, which is conducted by Mendoza in Sarchie’s Bronx home. “I renounce all evil,” Sarchie says in a close-up as his wife Jen beams at him. In short, the film’s male character saves his female family by defeating a male demon with the help of a male priest, and his wife assumedly still doesn’t know what happened because of her boring home-front lady concerns.
Stop with the demon-hunting and help with the dishes, already!
We’ve seen what women can be great central figures in horror stories, most notably in The Descent, although admittedly female protagonists are usually paired up against female monsters or villians, as in The Ring or Aliens. But for some reason, once the horror story being told is about demonic possession, female characters tend to get less interesting. Perhaps it’s in the archaic, religious background of demon possession stories where female characters have yet to find footing. Perhaps it’s the insistence on women being virginal innocents. Films involving demons often refer to their own mythology to shape audience expectation, and in most Judeo-Christian stories about primary evil, women are more often victimized than they are agents in their own salvation.
Although the subject of demonic possession is a very old one, its repeated use in contemporary films suggests that it will stick around in our consciousness for a while. But if demon stories continue down the stale road of marginalizing female characters into flat stereotypes, the genre will never grow into anything capable of sustaining continued interest. The Exorcist succeeded for many reasons, but one of its primary, resounding strengths was the shocking new use of a young, female character. Regan is both a complicated victim and an agent in her own story. We need to write and realize Regan’s female contemporaries in our demon stories: women who are more than a mass of snarling, double-jointed limbs.
Related Reading: The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts.