Why is there evil in the world? If there is an all-powerful God, how can he permit it to happen? And how many times can you exploit that old device of unleashing something scary, revealing the scare to be a false-alarm nothing, and following up with something really scary?
These are the kinds of things that can really trouble a guy in the wee, witching hours. Scott Derrickson’s loose (as in no resemblance at all) adaptation of a NYPD sergeant/demonologist’s 2001 memoir, “Beware the Night,” resolves the first two questions over a couple of drinks in a bar. Real-life character Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), a skeptical, lapsed Catholic and a hard-boiled seen-it-all cop, asks fictitious exorcist/priest Joe Mendoza (Edgar Ramírez) the first couple of questions, illustrating his point of view with vivid examples from his own police experience. Mendoza takes a shot of Jack Daniels and a drag on a cigarette and tells Sarchie, OK, so there’s evil, but how about we talk about good? And then he points out all the N.Y. firefighters in the bar, asking, if there’s no good in the world, how can you explain all these people willing to give up their lives for a stranger?
Case closed. As for the third question, the answer is: not often enough. Though Derrickson offers some new twists on old tricks, and evokes a mood of menace with rainy streets, gloomy interiors, and the transformation of comforting everyday objects into something horrible, the story soon devolves into variations of many movies we have seen before.
And one in particular. “Evil” opens in 2010 in the Iraqi desert, with a squad of Marines taking on insurgents in a firefight. Having dispatched the human adversaries, a trio of fighting men descend into a spooky-looking tunnel, one of them filming with a helmet cam. Will they find Saddam Hussein? Weapons of mass destruction? Or something worse? Before you can say “Pazuzu” the video goes blank, but judging from the screams on the audio, what they find is nothing good.
Flash-forward to 2013 and, like every dedicated cop in movie history, Sarchie has a hard time not taking his work home with him, or getting home at all. His wife, Jen (Olivia Munn), and daughter feel neglected. Sarchie is at wit’s ends. Recently a bunch of cases involving battered women and child abuse have gotten him down. He decides to follow up on one of these with his wisecracking partner Butler (Joel McHale), and they get entangled in what Mendoza calls “primary evil,” the diabolic source of all the “secondary evil” in the world.
Time to swap the 9mm for a copy of The Good Book and a vial of holy water. The chief suspect turns out to be an Iraq war vet who has an extreme form of PTSD or has been possessed by a demon. Either way, he gets shackled to a chair in the station house to undergo a combination of the third degree and the familiar special effects of movie exorcism.
All in all, one of the better spook shows of the summer. Too bad Derrickson delivers us from evil all too soon, and lets the generic conventions take possession of his movie.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.