More than anything, police officers represent order. At their core, they are human justice, powered by logic and reason and science. They’re investigators, soldiers and, on occasion, psychologists. The best cops are brave, intelligent and know when to negotiate and when to pull their weapon. They are instruments of modern civilization.
And that’s why they tend to die so quickly in horror movies.
The horror genre is all about tearing its characters away from any kind of safety nets, tearing down worlds both personal and literal. When the cops show up in the third act of a slasher movie, they don’t save the day — they get a sudden axe to the back of the head and the survivors find themselves, once again, out of options and feeling for their lives. In most horror movies, cops simply exist to die, to be the possible escape route/savior who is brutally dispatched to teach the audience that it was foolish to have hope.
Still, a handful of horror movies actually put police officers front and center, making them the lead characters rather than some shrieking sorority girl. And more often than not, these films find our cop protagonists facing down the forces of Satan himself. While cinematic college students seem to specialize in running to masked maniacs with sharp weapons, cinematic cops tend to find themselves running into demons.
Cops have tangled with the demonic plenty of times throughout cinematic history, both as leads and as supporting characters. In the case of The Exorcist, the detective investigating the strange events surrounding the possession of Regan ultimately proves in over his head, contributing nothing to saving her soul by the time the credits roll. But times change: in The Conjuring, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga’s paranormal investigators are assisted by a local cop who sticks by their side throughout the climax of the film, getting the s**t beaten out of him in the name of fighting a demonic force that he doesn’t understand. Even though this is a smaller role, it perfectly personifies why the cop-vs.-demon dynamic is one of the most pleasurable in horror cinema. What happens when a man or woman who had dedicated their life to fixing human problems with reason and human force finds themselves up against a problem that makes their skill set look so useless, pathetic and, for the lack of a better word, mortal?
In Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil, this clash between modern investigation and ancient superstition forms the crux of the entire plot. Eric Bana’s New York City police officer is a type we’ve seen before: a blue-collar working man who works the mean streets to provide for his family, having become deeply cynical and jaded by what he’s seen over the years. He’s so jaded by his daily exposure to man’s inhumanity to man (finding dead babies in dumpsters will do that to you) that it takes him a little too long to realize that the criminal he’s pursuing is actually possessed by a demon and is planning to unleash all kinds of heinous, unholy terror on the people in his life. When Bana ultimately teams up with Edgar Ramirez’s Jesuit Priest, the film clicks into its most satisfying groove, becoming a buddy-cop movie where one of the buddy cops just so happens to be a trained exorcist. What’s most enjoyable about Deliver Us from Evil (and it is a creepy and highly entertaining B-horror flick) is how it takes the cop-movie template and injects it with horror, taking two genres that we know inside and out and mashing them together to make something that can’t help but feel a little special. We know what happens in exorcism movies, but we don’t know what happens when a cop is the one leading the charge against evil. We know what happens in cop movies, but we don’t know what happens when the perp has the power of Hell itself at his disposal.
However, Deliver Us from Evil isn’t the first film to mash up the police procedural and the demonic possession story (although it’s arguably one of the most successful). One of the silliest films of this type is undeniably Tobe Hooper’s The Mangler, which finds a police officer played by Ted Levin squaring off against a laundry press that’s been possessed by the devil. And then there’s Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors, which pits an ex-cop turned security guard against a demonic invasion that’s using, you guessed it, mirrors to enter our world. Fallen finds an ordinary homicide cop tracking the demon Azazel, who can possess new victims by touch. The least subtle of these films is easily Devil, where police officers watch a demonic event unfold via security cameras and literally comment on how crazy and in over their heads they are.
These films vary in quality, but they all mine their viewing pleasures from the same dynamic: a modern man is forced to accept the existence of an ancient evil so he can fight it properly. Since cinematic cops are always cynical and always ready to find a scientific or reasonable excuse for the extraordinary, they’re ideal fodder for this kind of story. Their job tells you everything you need to know about them from frame one, so from that point on, it’s just a matter of seeing how much they can change. This is showcased well in the ludicrous (and ludicrously entertaining) End of Days, where star Arnold Schwarzenegger plays his typical action-hero role, only to find himself combating the Devil himself. The film may not be particularly good, but it’s required viewing — watching an action hero known for his supernatural ways of cheating death fight something that makes him look downright grounded is a sight to see.
In fact, the grounded nature of police officers and investigators has a habit of slipping into more fantastical movies, too. Would Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy be half as effective if the demon turned paranormal investigator at the center of it didn’t have the blue collar, jaded attitude of a New Jersey beat cop? Probably not.
As long as there are horror movies, there will be cops who find themselves in over their heads (and often without their heads). As long as there are horror movies about demons, there will be cops who fail to recognize what’s going on and save the day. However, there will also be the cops who rise to the challenge, put aside everything they learned at the academy and save the day. After all, there is no more thrilling showdown in horror cinema than a representative of human law battling agents of supernatural chaos.
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