Can A Christian make horror movies? Scott Derrickson thinks so. As a screenwriter, he has worked on quite a few films in the genre, including Urban Legends: Final Cut, Dracula 2000 and Hellraiser: Inferno, the last of which he also directed. His newest film as co-writer and director, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, looks at first glance like more of the same.
But this movie is a little different. It is based on the true story of a Bavarian woman named Anneliese Michel, who died during an exorcism in 1976; the priests who tried to cast the demons out of her were convicted of negligent manslaughter. So the film is part horror story, part courtroom drama and, says Derrickson, it will get people talking about God.
“My whole trajectory in this genre started when I was in film school,” he says during a phone interview from his home in Glendale, California. “I knew that I wanted to integrate my faith with cinema in some way that was relevant to the culture.”
After graduating from Biola University, Derrickson pursued a master’s degree in film at the University of Southern California; and it was at that time that he read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and Walker Percy’s novel Lancelot, which states that “evil” is “surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age… God may be absent, but what if someone should find the Devil?”
“It really started to resonate with me,” says Derrickson, “that this was the genre where a Christian could connect with mainstream culture, and there was potential there to not preach to the choir — and to not even preach to the culture, but connect with the culture. And that is certainly what I have been trying to do with a lot of my work.
“In the case of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, I was very committed not to make a movie that was intended to give spiritual or religious or metaphysical answers to the audience. I really just wanted to make a film to provoke the mainstream audience to ask themselves what they believe, and cause them to come away from the film provoked to think about and discuss spiritual matters and spiritual issues that I think are profoundly important.”
Derrickson says his favorite film of all time is Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a heartwarming parable about a salaryman who finds new meaning in his life after he discovers he has terminal cancer; a close runner-up is Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Neither film has all that much in common with horror movies, but both films deal with the nature of memory and testimony, and since The Exorcism of Emily Rose is, in part, a courtroom drama, it touches on those themes too.
Natural or supernatural?
The film begins after Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) has already died. Her priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is charged with negligent homicide. His lawyer, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), is a skeptic who drinks a lot and reads Carl Sagan; while Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), the lawyer representing the D.A.’s office, is an active Methodist whose faith doesn’t interfere with his efforts to prove to the jury there was nothing spiritual or supernatural about Emily’s death.
“This film is really about presenting cogent arguments for two very different perspectives on this girl’s condition and her story and I tried to have those articulated very well throughout the film,” says Derrickson.
“The goal is to leave people asking themselves what they believe about this particular girl’s case. And what do they believe about the larger questions that her case proposes? Do demons exist? Is there a spiritual realm? How does God play into all of that? Is there a Devil and therefore is there a God? Questions like that. And I don’t think anyone can watch this movie without asking themselves what they believe.”