Touted as such by its director, Scott Derrickson, The Exorcism of Emily Rose may in fact be the first courtroom horror film. The TV spots and trailers would not lead you to believe that, however, as all we see is a horrified Emily Rose contorting her body and experiencing visions of ordinary people melting into demons. Put away those pretenses that the film is a balls-to-the-wall exercise in demonic terror. It is a courtroom picture with demonic flashbacks, but a solid one at that. Derrickson’s experiment pays off in terms of intrigue and intensity.
As is the case with many films that are “based on a true story,” we have some name changing going on here. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is actually based upon the story of Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian girl born in 1952. She led a happy childhood in a religious family, but at the age of sixteen she began to experience what her parents believed to be demon attacks. Her body would contort, she would shake violently, and even reported seeing demons in her everyday life. She was diagnosed with Grand Mal epilepsy and given prescription drugs. Nothing helped, however, and the family soon called upon Pastor Ernst Alt, who truly believed Anneliese was in grave danger because of the demons, to perform an exorcism on Anneliese. After an unsuccessful attempt, Father Arnold Renz was assigned by Bishop Josef Stangl to try with the assistance of Alt. Anneliese would eventually have two exorcisms performed per week and actually become even more violent. She refused to eat, exclaiming that the demons would not let her. On July 30, 1976, Anneliese collapsed and passed on. Both priests and Anneliese’s parents were charged with negligent homicide.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose tackles both sides of this debate in the courtroom with flashbacks to Emily’s (Carpenter) descent into madness in place to really keep your attention. Erin Brunner (Linney) is a hotshot attorney on her way up the ladder after winning a high profile murder case. She is approached about representing Father Moore (Wilkinson), the priest present during Emily Rose’s final moments during her final exorcism. The debate: Was Emily epileptic, psychotic and simply in need of good medication? Or was she inhabited by demonic spirits who eventually tortured her soul enough to kill her?
Derrickson and fellow screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman take a straightforward, almost Unsolved Mysteries-style approach to the material. The bulk of the film takes place in the courtroom as we hear various experts testify to what they believe happened to Emily. In bone-chilling flashbacks we get a glimpse of things from Emily’s point of view and there is a harrowing exorcism sequence that serves as the climax of the film. This is thoroughly unsettling material whether you believe in demons or not.
The performances are all very good. Laura Linney exudes confidence as Brunner, but she may be experiencing some paranormal activity herself. Tom Wilkinson, one of the finest actors working today, turns in a tight, focused performance as Father Moore. His role is pivotal to the film’s success because if he were to misstep in portraying the central character in such a dividing film, we could be looking at a mess of a final product. Jennifer Carpenter is appropriately petrified virtually every minute she is on screen. From the very first time we see her on screen we can tell something is not quite right. Do we have a new scream queen in the making?
With a story that one can’t help but think about and more than a few discomforting sequences, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is an easy recommendation if you’re in the mood for a few spooks and something to talk about around the water cooler the next day at work. Many will dismiss it as hokum dressed up by Hollywood, but isn’t the debating the most fun aspect with films like this?
Studio: Screen Gems
Length: 108 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images.
Theatrical Release: September 9, 2005
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson.
Cast: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter, Colm Feore, Joshua Close