Spotlight: Horror Used for Good
By Alex Field
December 5, 2007
How the man behind the upcoming remake of horror classic The Birds is changing Hollywood.
It was recently announced that Scott Derrickson would be at the helm of a remake of the Alferd Hitchcock classic The Birds. The filmmaker, who is also a Christian, is the man behind several recent horror films, including The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and is becoming one of Hollywood’s most unique directors. We took a look at how his career first got started, and how a B-movie plot drew inspiration from C.S. Lewis.
The Hellraiser horror-film franchise is known for its over-the-top violence, cardboard characters and plot lines so dull that it’s hard to imagine anyone steering it in the right direction. But Christian filmmaker Scott Derrickson isn’t one to let a challenge pass him by.
In the late ’90s, Dimension Films offered Derrickson the chance to write and direct the fifth film in the bloody series. It came at a most opportune time. Derrickson had recently sold a spec script called Darkness Falling to Tristar Pictures. Unfortunately, Columbia had just acquired Tristar, and the new boss “didn’t understand” Darkness Falling. In effect, the script went into turnaround (a nice way of saying it was shelved). So, armed with C.S. Lewis as inspiration, Derrickson took the offer from Dimension Films, seeing it as an opportunity to give the horror genre a needed creative revision, while at the same time injecting the horror film with a redemptive theme.
From the beginning, Derrickson set out to achieve a higher standard and make more than just a grisly horror movie. His goal was decidedly challenging: He had to tell a smart horror story that reflected his passion for excellence and his values, while packing a fiery punch that true horror-film fans would still enjoy. And all of this had to be accomplished with a budget of less than $2 million. He took to the challenge with fervor.
“The process on [Hellraiser] ended up being a really positive one because they let us write the script the way we wanted it, and then Bob Weinstein let me direct the movie," Derrickson says. "And it was such a small movie. They were off shooting Reindeer Games, which was a $40 million movie, and Scream 3 and Texas Rangers, which was a big movie for them. They just left me alone, and I never had an executive on the set. It was a tough movie because of how little money we had. With the exception of the budget, I got to make the movie I wanted to make.”
At the end of the day, Hellraiser Inferno is, without a doubt, a horror film you watch entirely at your own risk, but the bottom line is that it goes where Hellraiser had never gone before—and boldly. To cite a few examples: Inferno’s protagonist walks a meaningful character arc from inciting incident to resolution; the plot, while confusing and purposefully erratic, comes to a reasonable conclusion in the final scenes; and the use of the infamous Hellraiser demons is as subtle as the genre will permit. On the technical side, the camera movements and lighting are subtle enough to suggest a director with a taste for more sophisticated fare.
Of course, when discussing a project like this, some questions need to be addressed. For example, how much does someone struggle with making ultra-violent and grotesque films with a debatable message?
It’s a safe bet that the last thing you’d call to mind in conjunction with Hellraiser is a book by a wizened old English theologian named Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis. The challenge here is to compare two pieces of pop culture that come from completely opposite ends of the spectrum, discuss their differences and learn something from their similarities.
Lewis’ most well-known book, The Screwtape Letters, offers a mischievous and ironic slant on the difficulties and temptations of life as a follower of Christ. Through the pen of a fictional demon named Screwtape, Lewis created what amounts to a satiric demon’s guide to winning human souls. The idea was to give people a unique, poignant and often hilarious view into their own raw humanity. The book immediately caught on around the world, became an international best seller and is still widely read today.
When Derrickson mentioned he had found inspiration in The Screwtape Letters when working on the movie, it seemed like strange company for Hellraiser: Inferno, and yet somehow exactly right.
“I love the horror genre for how cinematic it is,” Derrickson says. “I gravitated, I think initially, toward the horror genre because, of all the genres, I think it is the genre that is most friendly to the subject matter of faith and belief in religion. The more frightening and sort of dark and oppressive a movie is, the more free you are to explore the supernatural and explore faith. The two just somehow go hand-in-hand really nicely. I became very interested in it for that reason, and The Screwtape Letters was the beacon.”
While Derrickson’s film and The Screwtape Letters strike similar chords, neither the mainstream media nor the Church came to recognize Hellraiser: Inferno as the postmodern version of the book. Nonetheless, the similarities are there.
Like the Bible itself, The Screwtape Letters is severe in its description of sin and authentic in its definition of humanity and the failings of all people. Whereas Lewis’ approach is decidedly more proper, Derrickson portrays the same idea of referring to God simply by implication.
So what does this mean for Christian writers, critics, audiences and aspiring filmmakers? Could it be true that science fiction and horror films carry weightier faith questions than other films? Perhaps this phenomenon can be attributed to these films’ special effects, stylish and offbeat characters and radical plot lines. Either way, the implicit challenge to spiritual filmmakers is not to overlook the B-film genres as a sub-par breeding ground for a powerful filmmaking experience.
In Derrickson’s experience, “the more frightening and dark and oppressive a movie is, the more free you are to explore the supernatural and explore faith.” His point makes sense, especially after watching films like Bless the Child, Stigmata, The Third Miracle and even the laughable End of Days. The theme of darkness and the supernatural element are consistent in each film, but the spiritual discussion seems wide open.
It is especially important for us to remember that God can use all sorts of spectacular and unpredictable tools to reveal His truth to people. In fact, if our God is capable of using anything and anyone for His will, maybe it’s not too much to suggest that God can use horror films for His glory, too.