The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter

Reviewer: Susanna Krawczyk

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is very much a by-the-numbers haunting/possession story. Purporting to be “based on a true story”, it tells the tale of a nineteen year-old girl from a devoutly Catholic family who suffers a number of alarming seizures and hallucinations. Though she is diagnosed with epilepsy, both she and her parish priest, Father Moore, nevertheless become convinced she is a victim of demonic possession. On Moore’s advice she discontinues her medication and undergoes exorcism, only to die shortly after.

The film opens with Moore’s trial for negligent homicide. The question is: in advising Emily to stop taking her medication, did he doom her to damaging seizures, terrifying hallucinations and, finally, a painful death? Or was Emily truly possessed, the drugs doing nothing but weakening her mind and spirit and allowing the demons to take a firmer and firmer hold of her? The prosecution believes the former, and the task of proving them wrong falls to Erin Bruner, a high-flying lawyer who is not at all sure of the spiritual issues involved.

Much of the movie is taken up with the court case as it unfolds, and we hear from witnesses who tell Emily’s story in flashback form, which was most effective in building suspense as the viewer draws ever nearer to Father Moore’s key testimony: the story of the exorcism itself. This was the one element of the movie that I felt was somewhat original and refreshing, combining the typical gruesome images and bizarre manifestations of the “possession” genre with a fairly engaging courtroom drama.

The spiritual and medical explanations for Emily’s suffering are explored in some detail through the testimony of both medical and religious witnesses, and add a little depth to the film for anyone who is interested in “demonic possession”. Bruner’s spiritual uncertainty is also addressed, and she represents the modern world, which would rather accept a medical explanation, no matter what the inconsistencies, than entertain the notion that demons might be real.

Emily’s possession manifests itself in the manner that horror fans have come to expect: glowing eyes, painful and impossible bodily contortions, etc. For all this, there are some genuinely shocking scenes as well as a few well-crafted moments of atmospheric tension. Sadly most of these put the exorcism itself to shame, since its night-time setting keeps the viewer in the dark (literally) as to what is going on, and like the rest of the “scary bits” of the movie, it suffered from jittery split-second editing, relying on making the viewer jump for scares rather than creating a real sense of horror.

All in all it is an enjoyable film, not particularly innovative or creative, but genuinely entertaining and with a strong sense of the spirituality behind its premise. The decision to film it as a courtroom drama and to tell the horror story in flashback deserves recognition, and might prevent seasoned horror viewers from becoming too bored with its many clichés and tried-and-tested devices.