Autumn is upon us and another high-concept, mainstream horror film is being released for some pre-Halloween thrills. If you’re a fan of scary movies, then the title must have already caught your eye. Yes, the classic, timeless tradition of exorcising the demonically possessed is once again being glamorized in cinema.
What I have always enjoyed about religion-based exorcism films is that they don’t stray too far away from the reality of society. In movies like The Exorcist, Stigmata, or The Omen , sensible law and order affect the decisions about what to do about supernatural beings. The Exorcism of Emily Rose does boast the “True Story” label at the beginning, and although I was skeptical about how true it really was, I must agree that the premise of The Exorcism of Emily Rose provides a very real approach to what would happen if a girl really were possessed in this day in age.
The film starts with the passing of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) and the beginning of a trial against the priest who stands accused of contributing to her death. Local priest Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) suspected that Emily was possessed by demonic spirits. Moore had advised her to stop taking the medication she took for psychosis and epilepsy and had started to personally counsel her through the horrible experiences. He decided an exorcism would be the only way to save her life, and after failing to get the spirits out, she died. Despite the fact that her parents fully supported the priest’s decision, only he is put on trial. Defense attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney, Kinsey ) takes the case to defend the priest.
During the trial we do finally meet Emily, through flashbacks, as witnesses tell about her during the alleged possession, the exorcism rituals, and her death. The prosecution relies on the doctors, who all testify that Emily had psychotic epilepsy, and that taking her off the medications killed her. The defense calls many family members, her boyfriend, and Father Moore, who even plays an audio tape that recorded the exorcism.
Since childhood, horror films have always been a personal favorite of mine; the adrenaline rush from being scared has always been a great delight to me. Unfortunately, I hadn’t really seen a film that actually gave me that rush in the theaters since 1999 (don’t laugh — Stir of Echoes ), until I saw this movie. The film is so, so, so very terrifying. I got agitated and freaked out during a few of the more effective scenes, in a PG-13 movie, no less!
The moments that really send the shivers up my spine aren’t the cheap thrills (where a sudden, loud noise makes you jump) but the disturbing imagery. Granted, my audience ate up all of the cheap-jump tricks that were used, but the shots of Emily during her possession were driving me insane with fear. Her body twists into unnatural positions, her eyes roll back into her head, her face painfully grimaces in fear — all apparently done without CGI — this image of her is still in my head.
In a clever casting decision, Carpenter plays Emily Rose, providing the most sincere terror and pain that you could ask for. This young actress has dabbled in horror before, starring in White Chicks , a film that sent people running from the theater in screaming hysterics. As Father Moore, Wilkinson also delivers a fine performance (he always does), its just a shame the script was so weak for the powerful actor.
Despite the concept being fresh, original, and clever, the writing is so atrocious it’s an embarrassment to witness. Director/writer Scott Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman are to blame, providing the most idiotic dialogue ever spoken on screen, especially during the courtroom scenes. These two have worked together before, teaming up for Urban Legends: Final Cut and Hellraiser: Inferno , two landmarks of cinema for which I’m sure we all thank the cosmos daily.
The writing is not just bad, it’s laughable . One scene got to be so awful that I shook my head in disgust, while other critics near me groaned and a few of the audience members broke out laughing. When the audience is laughing at the film instead of with the film, then it’s got real problems.
But what’s worse than bad dialogue is bad actors reciting bad dialogue. Save for Carpenter and Wilkinson, much of the acting is stale and unconvincing. Linney nervously gawks for most of the film, the prosecuting attorney (Campbell Scott) reminded me of a robot, and Emily’s boyfriend is played by one of the worst actors I’ve seen in recent memory. His name is Joshua Close, and may we pray that a priest exorcises him from Hollywood.
Exhibit A in Evidence
When the film began, Based on a True Story showed up on the screen, but by the credits True Story My Ass was going through my mind. After a bit of Google research, I discovered that the premise was primarily true, but details and timeline of the case were altered to cooperate with the writers’ intentions. Turns out the girl in question wasn’t named Emily Rose, but Anneliese Michel, and the time of possession started in the year 1968 and continued until her death on July 1, 1976.
The two priests who performed the famous exorcism were Father Arnold Renz and Pastor Ernst Alt, both assigned by the Bishop of Wurzburg. Father Moore is the only priest in this film, and it is never totally clear if he requested permission from higher up in the church. Michel’s actual possession sounds a great deal more intense than Rose’s too; Emily only had six demons in her body, while Anneliese had quite a impressive laundry list of spirits. Some of them being your everyday evil demons, like Lucifer, but also a few peculiar spirits, such as Judas Iscariot, Cain, Hitler, and even a disgraced Frankish Priest from the 16th century.
The freaky behaviors that Michel exhibited are all incorporated into the film: unnatural strength, violence towards others, anorexia, uncontrollable urinating, eating of insects, self-mutilation, and raging contempt towards holy objects. Two exorcism sessions were held each week for Anneliese, beginning in September ‘75, and continued until her death. "Beg for Absolution" was the last thing she said to the two exorcists before she died. Forensic evidence shows that she starved to death, and the senior prosecutor began investigating immediately.
The trial was more complicated in the true story because the real world is that way. It took the prosecution over two years to take the case to court, and unlike in the film, her parents were also put on trial for negligent homicide. And I’m pretty sure none of the participants in the trail were talking like complete morons, either. The verdict was guilty; the parents and two exorcists were sentenced to six months in jail and probation.
My feelings toward the film are completely ambivalent; I want so much to love it, yet there are still many things getting in the way of my appreciation. It had such potential to be a horror masterpiece; just the concept of a courtroom horror film like this would make a decent screenwriter salivate with ideas.
Ultimately, when I think about how much The Exorcism of Emily Rose genuinely terrified me, and try my hardest to block out the horrendous writing, I am pleased with this cinematic experience.