Guilty and Free to Go: Faith and the Law in Three Scott Derrickson Films
Whenever I move and start attending a new church, I am always asked what I do. The follow-up question to saying I’m a writer is that I write horror. These two aspects — being a horror writer and being a Christian — seem to be opposites. The person who understands this is director Scott Derrickson.
“I always talk about it [horror] being the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that it’s a genre about confronting evil, confronting what’s frightening in the world,” Derrickson said in a 2014 interview. So that’s what I tell people, too. On the page, I get to act out that battle between good and evil, both in the real world and in the supernatural. Throughout his career, Derrickson has been confronting and, as he likes to say, reckoning with this dichotomy. In Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and Deliver Us from Evil (2014), Derrickson uses cops and courts to play out this drama.
While Derrickson’s films have twice dealt with “the devil,” his first feature took on a newer form of evil: Pinhead. Released in 2000, Hellraiser: Inferno was the first of the Clive Barker-created franchise to go direct to video. While series fans are often disappointed that Doug Bradley’s iconic Hell Priest doesn’t appear until late in the film, the monk’s presence is felt throughout the film. Craig Sheffer’s Det. Joe Thorn is not a good cop. He’s a philanderer, a drug addict, and not opposed to beating information out of sources. He’s also a husband and father. While on a case, he sleeps with a prostitute who is then murdered after he leaves her. This starts the redemption cycle the film is ultimately concerned with. Derrickson and early screenwriting partner Paul Harris Boardman set about to drive Thorn through the spiral of guilt, even to point of showing Thorn’s wife and daughter chained to an obelisk, not unlike the Pillar of Souls from Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1993). The hooks aren’t in them. Instead, they are freezing and then shatter before Thorn’s eyes, all in the attempt to show Thorn what his own personal Hell would be.
But then it’s over. Thorn awakes in the bathroom of the prostitute. He gives his goodbyes and walks out of the door, smiling, thinking it was just a drug-induced hallucination. Then he gets the phone call from the woman just before she is murdered that sets the events of the film in motion. Instead of reliving it, he eats his gun.
Enter, once more, the Hell Priest. Priest he is, ready to take Thorn’s confession and offering, in a way, absolution. Pinhead has not been the active source of murder and torment we are accustomed to; he is, indeed, preaching. “Your flesh is killing your spirit,” Pinhead says, paraphrasing a number of scriptures, including the King James Version of Romans 8:6, which says, “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”
There are bad cops like Thorn and those genuinely trying to do what is right like Tony Nenonen (Nick Turturro) within Derrickson’s version of Hellraiser. While he lingers longer with Thorn, Derrickson shows that nothing is black and white. Good and evil co-exist and as humans, it is our eternal struggle to make each choice and see which outweighs the other when our earthly lives come to an end.
The film, almost universally panned and being made under Miramax/Dimension, seems to know that evil can be turned for good. The credits end with this, in bold: SOLI DEO GLORIA. Glory to God alone.
Putting his faith on trial, Derrickson next directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, released in 2005. Based on the true story of German Anneliese Michel, Derrickson and Boardman transported the story to Minnesota and kept the Catholic trappings viewers were familiar with from The Exorcist (1973). Rather than focus on the exorcism events themselves, Derrickson shifts to the trial of Father Thomas Moore (Tom Wilkinson) and his lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney). Jennifer Carpenter gives a startling performance as the title character and shows both the physical and mental anguish involved in a possession case.
Derrickson, who remains a Christian but is also a proponent of science, examines both sides. The film directly confronts ideas about faith versus doubt and faith versus facts, which are similar, but not the same. Both fact and faith require doubt. Doubt pushes us to find “truth,” whether that is in faith, science, or both (yes, it can be both). Doubt pushes us to continually ask questions, whether that is in scientific experimentation or taking questions to God in prayer.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose asks one of the biggest questions confronting both believers and non-believers: if there is a God, why does he allow bad things to happen to good people? The personal answer the film offers is that Emily chose to continue her suffering to the point of death so that the world could hear her story and know that He exists. Like Job in the Old Testament, Emily Rose is essentially an innocent who experiences great suffering as an example of faith. Yes, it is easy to shrug this idea off as some bizarre ancient belief that doesn’t hold weight in the 21st century. But as Bruner, the lawyer, states in her closing argument, “Fact leaves no room for reasonable doubt.” She answers the big question with another question: Is it possible? Is it possible that God exists? Is it possible that science cannot explain everything?
In 2014, after a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008 and the hit Sinister in 2012, Derrickson returned to crime-based Satan-fighting and exorcisms in Deliver Us from Evil. Like Emily Rose, Deliver Us from Evil is based on a true story, this time from the memoirs of former NYPD detective Ralph Sarchie. In his National Catholic Register interview coinciding this the film’s release, Derrickson stated that, while not Catholic himself, he would call a Catholic priest for “heavy artillery” in fighting the devil, but with a laugh. More seriously, he’d call Sarchie.
Deliver Us from Evil includes an interesting nod to Christian history: lapsed Catholic Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) comes face to face with a lion during an investigation at a zoo. He is, essentially, thrown to the lions as the Romans reportedly did with early Christians. The film also begins with a scene in the Middle East, not unlike The Exorcist. The jail cell exorcism in the film is also reminiscent of the 1973 classic. But more importantly, the relationship between Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) and Sarchie reflects the relationship that Lieutenant Kinderman develops first with Father Karras in The Exorcist and later Father Dyer in The Exorcist III (1990). The detective and priest dynamic continue the theme in The Exorcism of Emily Rose of law and faith co-existing. When taking the witness stand, Americans do, more often than not, swear on a Bible to tell the truth.
Mendoza, while discussing his own sordid history before joining the clergy, asks Sarchie a version of the question in Derrickson’s prior film. “When did you give up on God?” Sarchie relates a tale of murder that would turn anyone away from God, but in the eyes of Father Moore in the prior film and Mendoza in this, should propel a person toward greater faith. Father Moore tells Erin Bruner that demons exist whether she believes in them or not. Mendoza essentially says the same to Sarchie. “I mean, we can talk all night about the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good? I mean, if there’s no God, if the world is just ‘survival of the fittest,’ then why are all the men in this room willing to lay down their lives for total strangers?” Mendoza offers. He’s talking to Sarchie, but he, and Derrickson, is speaking to anyone who will listen.
All have sinned and fallen short, the scriptures say. Or, as in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, when Father Moore is found guilty of negligent homicide and then sentenced, we are guilty, but we are also free to go. Derrickson asks us to question our agency and in these three films uses different aspects of the American justice system to push us not only to recognize good and evil but to see redemption when it is offered to us. 🩸
Greydanus, Steven D. “Interview: Filmmaker Scott Derrickson on Horror, Faith, Chesterton and His New Movie.” National Catholic Register. July 1, 2014
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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