Movie theaters can sometimes be ghost towns in summer, as far as horror movies are concerned. A few indies might manage to creep into select theaters, but overall, this time of year is usually the province of superheroes, giant robots, and misbehaving man-children—not psycho killers. The common wisdom has been that the closer to Halloween, the better time to release a scary movie. And then last year, Warner Brothers’ The Conjuring opened up on July 19 and made over $300M worldwide. The idea of leaving a market underserved is something executives find truly terrifying. Not just any horror movie will play well with mainstream audiences, though.
The demonic possession scarer Deliver Us From Evil was originally slated for release next January, the other boom time for genre films. The day after writer-director Scott Derrickson screened his cut for the higher-ups at Sony, though, they decided to move it to July 2nd. It was a nice vote of confidence for a film already bearing the non-underdog imprimatur of executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Luckily, at the helm was a writer-director who'd already created a hit for the studio before (The Exorcism for Emily Rose), as well as an indie that's regarded as one of the scarier films in recent years (Sinister).
We may have learned about making a scary indie movie last year, but as Deliver Us From Evil opens in theaters, Derrickson talks to Co.Create about how to deliver the goods in a summer studio horror movie.
I try not to write screenplays strategically in terms of the budget. Typically, I just write the movie I’d like to make without feeling restrained by that, then we’ll budget the movie, and then there’s kind of a pass on the script to make concessions so it’s more financially comfortable for everybody. Once I’ve got the movie within proper budget range, it takes the pressure off a bit, so you’re not thinking about the finances and can just focus on the creative. As you’re shooting, things always happen that surprise you and can incur more expense—and that’s true no matter what the budget is.
The more you can do things in camera, with physical effects, the better. A lot of times, it’s not possible. The key to it is also being sensitive to the kind of things that are hard to make look real with CG effects. There are actually a surprising number of CG effects in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, and I think none of them feel like visual effects. They don’t pop out that way. There’s a scare with a lion in Deliver Us from Evil, and I was very nervous about not feeling real. It was a sequence I fought hard, in terms of the budget, to get into the movie, and worked hard to make seamless so that you wouldn’t know it was visual FX.
When you get into all-CG shots, where everything in the frame is CG, that’s when you really run the risk of having something that’s gonna pull the audience out of the movie. Sometimes you have to do it, especially on a big movie, but those shots take a lot of work.
I think that most audience members are probably like me. I like the proper shock of having some gore that comes at the right time in a movie, with a bit of restraint, and it’s actually a story point. I like when it takes you to a place the movie wouldn’t go without that moment. Those are always appreciated. I think you have to question yourself when you’re dealing with that kind of material about excessiveness and if the audience you’re playing to will appreciate it. I’ve always veered much more toward the imagination than on-screen violence.
The idea of what happens in the videos in Sinister is so extreme that if I showed some of the extremities that are hinted at, it would have literally ruined the movie. Imagination’s a powerful thing. I’ve had conversations with people where they swear that you can actually see the lawnmower hit that woman’s face and see blood afterward, but you can’t.
There’s a particular kind of quiet that plays really great in a big theater. It’s usually when you’re creating a certain amount of sustained tension and quietness that the audience isn’t too aware of, so that when something breaks the frame, the audience jumps because they weren’t expecting it. Generally, though, I think that when movies are intimate and quiet and particularly thoughtful, there’s something about the home viewing experience that can be better for a viewer. I’m not sure that Sinister is not a better movie to screen at home in a living room. It’s a very cinematic movie, but there’s a lot of intimate home environment in it that I think feels more unsettling at home than in a theater.
The idea that there is more to the world than the material, and that in the immaterial realm of reality there’s malevolence—that idea is terrifying to people. As long as there’s been religion, the idea that there’s a dark afterlife has been scary—great horror writers like Dante have been using (it) for centuries. I think it’s the mystery and the unknown—the unknown is always the scariest thing. Whatever religion, it always sets up a vast ocean of the unknown.
It’s tricky because you don’t want to get too deep in religion itself because it’s always controversial and everybody has their own belief system. But it doesn’t mean you can’t tell, say, a catholic story, like The Exorcist—it just has to be well-told tale. The trick of it is to get your audience to invest themselves in the point of view of the character. It doesn’t have to be the audience’s point of view. If they can get interested in how the main characters see the world, you can open them up to experiences based on that point of view.