Break on Through: The Music of Deliver Us From Evil

Mild spoilers for Deliver Us from Evil below.

“Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…” – Jim Morrison, intro to “Celebration of the Lizard”

When you think of great horror soundtracks, your mind probably goes to old favorites like PsychoHalloween, or The Exorcist. Those iconic themes are bound to raise the hairs on your neck even if you’re listening to them out of context. Whether it’s the orchestral work of Bernard Herrmann or the electronic synth of John Carpenter, a good horror soundtrack has the ability to startle an audience or keep them on edge in a way that the script or visuals cannot.

Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil has such a soundtrack. Composer Christopher Young is a veteran of the horror genre, having composed tracks for films like Drag Me to Hell and The Uninvited. But the film’s orchestral score is not what I’m here to talk about. Instead I’d like to acknowledge the film’s use of source music, something horror films aren’t entirely known for. Sure, John Carpenter famously used Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” inHalloween, and The Exorcist featured The Allman Brother’s “Ramblin’ Man” in one scene. But Deliver Us from Evilgoes one step further and makes its source music an integral part of the plot and themes.

The music I’m referring to is that of The Doors, an American rock band formed in California during the 1960’s. They were among the most controversial, influential, and unique rock groups of that era because of lead singer Jim Morrison’s wild and poetic lyrics, as well as his crazy and unpredictable stage presence. The band took their name from the title of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, itself derived from a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”

Their sound was a mix of the blues and psychedelic rock, the kind of music you might hear at a deranged carnival or fairground. There’s a certain primeval quality to it, almost tribal-like in its rhythms. Sometimes it can be light and fun (“Alabama Song”), other times haunting and hypnotic (“The End”). But there’s always been a darkness to their music, most of which can be attributed to Jim Morrison. While I don’t believe it’s ever been confirmed (or denied, for that matter), Morrison has always been linked in one way or another to the occult, and his lyrics could very well reflect that. Not explicitly, but they are darkly spiritual (even if most of that is more a result of drugs than actual belief). It doesn’t help that he died at the age of 27, and that his cause of death has been widely debated, even linked to the occult.

So it only makes sense that Derrickson would make liberal use of their music and lyrics in a film that so heavily deals with spirituality. The plot of Deliver Us from Evil mixes the police procedural and exorcism genre, as it concerns demonic forces attempting to enter our world by way of portals (or doors, if you will), and the dogged police sergeant and priest attempting to stop them. It’s an unexpected mash-up that puts familiar tropes in different contexts. We’re used to the haunted house or possessed village, but these guys are running around the rainy streets of the South Bronx and performing exorcisms in police interrogation rooms. So I think it’s that meeting of differences that gives Derrickson the license to make such a left-field music choice (although one that makes sense the more you think about it).

For my money, it’s probably the best use of The Doors on film since Apocalypse Now. But it’s not just used for one scene here or a quick montage there. The music of The Doors is very much a part of the film’s DNA, so much so that the credits might as well read “Music by Christopher Young (featuring The Doors).”

Two songs in particular stand out: “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” the first song off their self-titled debut album, and “People Are Strange,” off their second album, Strange Days.  “Riders on the Storm” also gets heavily featured in a bar scene, but that’s probably just because it’s an awesome song.

The inclusion of “Break on Through” is pretty self explanatory. The demonic forces are attempting to cross over into our world, while Sergeant Sarchie and Father Mendoza are attempting to break through to the souls that have been possessed. The lyrics are first spoken by a woman whose fallen victim to the demonic force, and again referenced in a police report, which helps give Sergeant Sarchie the in he needs to start tracking down these forces. The song finally appears in all its glory during the film’s climactic exorcism sequence, with the song being projected into Sarchie’s mind by the demon. Only he can hear it, which makes me think either it was the demon’s way of making Sarchie try and “understand” its mission, or it just really liked listening The Doors.

The lyrics “People Are Strange” first appear smeared across a bathroom mirror, only to manifest itself again in song as a projection onto Sarchie. They are words that speak to the film’s central theme on the nature evil, which is best explained in a conversation between Sarchie and Father Mendoza. Sarchie’s coming off a bad week on the job, one filled with more evil than he’s used to, but he’s still a skeptic and chalks it up to human nature. “As a cop, I’ve seen some horrible things, but nothing that can’t be explained by human nature.” “Then you haven’t seen true evil,” Mendoza retorts. “There are two types of evil in this life, Officer Sarchie. Secondary evil, the evil that men do. And primary evil, which is something else entirely.” Sometimes, it’s not the people that are strange, but rather what lurks within them.

Then there’s that quote from Blake which helped give The Doors their name. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.” At the outset, Sarchie is just a Christmas-Easter Catholic who hasn’t engaged much with his faith since the age of twelve. But Sarchie has a gift, an internal “radar” as his partner likes to refer to it, that steers him away from mundane radio calls and towards more exciting cases. He sees and hears things that other people in the same room can’t pick up on. Mendoza calls him out on it, encouraging him to use it to help other people, but warning him that it will put him at odds with these demonic forces. Sarchie ends the film a believer, one who fully acknowledges the breadth of spiritual existence between both God and the devil. To this day, Sarchie is a working demonologist, using his gift of spiritual perception alongside Bishop Robert McKenna, as well as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the investigators behind The Amityville Horror and the subjects of last summer’s horror hit, The Conjuring.

I’ve read a few reviews that have critiqued the use The Doors, especially in the climactic exorcism sequence. I think it works. It might be just that my relation to this music is different than a lot of people’s. To me, these aren’t radio singles or jukebox tunes intruding on a horror film. While they certainly have their moments, I’ve never seen The Doors as a pop rock band like a lot of people do. There was always something deeper, something darker to them, and I think that’s what Derrickson realized when he was putting this film together. The juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural, of light and darkness.

Am I looking too much into all this? Maybe, maybe not. The music is just too tied up with the film’s essence, even on a basic script level, for it to be more than a coincidence. It’s nice when you can look at a film and tell that the director actually put effort into the soundtrack, as opposed to allowing the composer or music supervisor just run with it. It’s not essential to enjoying or understanding the film, but it adds another level for me and is something I’m eager to hear other people talk about.