How does anyone become a "master of horror"? By the usual thinking, Scott Derrickson may not appear to qualify. His latest chiller, Deliver Us from Evil, has already received as many (or more) brickbats than plaudits from critics, though audiences in general have yet to cast their yays or nays. (It opens in theaters nationwide today.) And Derrickson's earlier directorial efforts in the genre (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno) have come in for their fair share of criticism. So how can Derrickson properly be described as a "master"?
Horror-movie buffs usually reserve that term for longtime filmmakers who have made one or more certified, bona fide classics, people like George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) and David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly). One dictionary defines "master" as "a skilled practitioner of a particular art or activity," and Derrickson has certainly demonstrated skill and craftsmanship in his films, to an increasing degree over the years. And, as he said recently to Peter Hall of Movies.com: "So you look at Emily Rose or Sinister or Deliver Us from Evil and no matter what you think about them, they're certainly deeply felt."
Indeed, each of Derrickson's horror pictures have examined the intersection of family, faith (or the lack thereof) and supernatural occurrences. In Hellraiser: Inferno, Craig Sheffer plays a corrupt Los Angeles police detective who cheats on his loving wife and ignores his young daughter. He steals the infamous puzzle box and is soon plagued by hellish nightmares that begin intruding on his daily existence, to the detriment of everyone around him. The fifth installment of the Hellraiser series was made for the "straight to video" market, but despite the low budget, Derrickson made a colorful, stylish movie that dealt with serious issues.
Five years later came The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on a book given to Derrickson by Ralph Sarchie (the real-life inspiration for Deliver Us from Evil). It's framed as a courtroom drama in which a priest (Tom Wilkinson) is accused of causing the death of a young woman named Emily Rose during an exorcism. Extensive flashbacks show that Emily Rose was haunted by something, to say the least. Film critic Roger Ebert noted: "A film that keeps an open mind must necessarily lack a slam-dunk conclusion." The lack of a "slam dunk" is typical of Derrickson's more restrained approach to horror.
A similar open-minded attitude prevails in the more recent Sinister. Ethan Hawke stars as a true-crime writer who moves his wife and two children into a house that was the site of a tragedy in which all four members of a family were found hanged. The writer is desperate to regain the success he enjoyed when his first book became a best seller and becomes obsessed with disturbing 8 mm films he finds in the house. Is he losing his mind, or are the home movies responsible for his increasingly isolated behavior?
Like his earlier films, Deliver Us from Evil seeks to build an atmosphere of dread and unease rather than go for more visceral thrills, like those found in movies revolving around more fantastical creatures of the night (vampires, werewolves, zombies). His newest work is unable to entirely avoid certain cliches of the demon/exorcism subgenre, and a few narrative holes are left unfilled.
Nonetheless, the fine performances by Eric Bana, as a cop who begins as a skeptic, and Edgar Ramirez, as a priest who gives him reason to believe, help to sell the events that transpire, making Deliver Us from Evil both a spine-tingling experience and a thoughtful reflection on the nature of good and evil. With his latest film, Scott Derrickson proves he's a master of horror. The skills he has developed should serve him well as he prepares for his biggest project yet: Marvel's supernaturally tinged Doctor Strange.