The Exorcism of Emily Rose has a rather unfortunate title — it invites comparison to both The Exorcist and Audrey Rose. Indeed, it even shares some similarities with those 1970s creep-out classics: A young woman’s soul is in great peril, and she incessantly screams about it at the top of her lungs in glass-breaking pitch.
But The Exorcism of Emily Rose has more in common with TV’s Law & Order. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — in fact, the movie is a sufficiently interesting mix of courtroom drama, horror, mystery, and biopic. While the square pegs don’t always fit into the round holes, writer/director Scott Derrickson should be commended for trying something a little different in the current cinematic sea of bigger and bloodier horror remakes.
Fans of said bigger and bloodier remakes might be somewhat disappointed that The Exorcism of Emily Rose doesn’t much resemble its ad campaign — you know those leering, distorted, demonic faces you’re seeing on television commercials? Well, that’s all of them. You won’t see more than that in the movie.
The movie begins by introducing us to hotshot defense attorney, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a borderline alcoholic, can’t-hold-her-holy-water agnostic who may or may not have put a killer back on the streets with her most recent win. When she’s given the case of The People vs. Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), she’s not quite sure how to handle the legal hot cross bun. It’s like nothing she’s ever tried before; how to defend a priest charged with negligent homicide while exorcising the devil from local college girl Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). Before long everything falls into place — prosecuting attorney Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) leads the way with an all-science, all-medical argument (that Emily was epileptic), while Father Moore takes care of the spiritual side and a few of Erin’s personal demons give her a glimpse of the supernatural.
The casting is quite good, if not especially inspired. Reliable actors Linney and Scott lock horns in a predictable but passable manner. Wilkenson is plausible as the parish priest who doesn’t care if he’s convicted or not; he wants only “to tell Emily’s story”. Carpenter is an amazing physical (and vocal!) presence as Emily, who we observe in flashbacks interspersed between courtroom scenes.
There’s an excellent opportunity here to show fair and balanced sides of the argument between the supernatural and science — and they do, in the courtroom dialogue. But the equilibrium is undermined by the fact that we’re only shown things outside the courtroom from the defense point of view. We follow Erin Bruner, Father Moore, and Emily. We do not see anything from the viewpoints of Emily’s medical doctors, nor do we learn anything beyond what Ethan Thomas reveals about himself in dialogue.
Some moviegoers might be left with more than a few questions. Mine were: Why, in this day and age, does the priest only have an audio cassette of the exorcism — no camcorder in the parish? How does a man get kicked square in the noggin by a harried horse — and not even suffer so much as a headache afterward? Since it’s freely admitted that the true case this movie is based on is that of Anneliese Michel — why not just call the movie The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel? Why is the priest put on trial, but not the parents — as happened in the real story? Why are cats always depicted as disciples of the devil — wouldn’t you like see an evil canary for a change? Finally, why does the devil even want Emily’s dreary existence — wouldn’t Old Scratch rather possess the party-ready body of somebody like Lindsay Lohan?
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a tough movie to pass judgment on. It’s got a lot of problems, yet it’s still entertaining. There may not be a lot of well-rounded character development, but the actors are all good in their roles. It’s not a scary horror movie, but it can be quite intense and suspenseful.
So I guess in a sense I’m a hung jury: I’m guilty of getting off on the courtroom twist on the horror genre, but I object to the one-sidedness of the story.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson
Be sure and read Horror.com's report from the set of The Exorcism of Emily Rose