The Exorcism of Emily Rose Review

The recipient of a scholarship, 19-year-old Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) leaves the isolated farmhouse where she grew up for college, apparently the first in her family to do so. Soon after she arrives, though, she is awoken one night at 3am with what she describes as a presence suffocating her. This one incident turns into a series of horrifying events, as she begins experiencing terrifying hallucinations, speaking in archaic languages, destroying symbols of faith and religion and feels her body contorting into odd shapes. The college health body suspects that Emily Rose is suffering from an extreme form of epilepsy bordering on psychosis and begins treating her with Gambutrol but her behaviour becomes increasingly difficult for her and the college to cope with and she leaves for home.

There, her family contact their local parish priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who follows church protocol in maintaining Emily's medical treatment but asks his bishop to authorise an exorcism. Concerned by Emily's behaviour, the bishop gives Father Moore permission that same day and soon after, he calls at Emily's family home to begin the ceremony. Months pass and the exorcisms continue but Emily dies, leaving Father Moore charged with negligent homicide. As the case against him begins, his defence counsel, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), is warned against putting him on the stand but he insists that he must be allowed to testify if only to tell Emily's story. But Father Moore is concerned for Erin's well-being, telling her that dark forces are surrounding this trial and soon, she too awakes at 3am convinced that there is a malevolent presence in her apartment with her...

There is a tendency to look upon exorcism as being only of a time when old women were still burned at the stake, drowned in village ponds and were branded as witches come the failing of the harvest. Despite the success of The Exorcist and of The Omen, there's a feeling that modernity has isolated us from our more savage and superstitious pasts and that the rite of exorcism is a relic that deserves no place in this early part of the new millennium. But then you learn that The Exorcism of Emily Rose is not, like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, based on the events of some hundreds of years ago but on those in the early seventies in the small German town of Klingenberg am Main, where Anneliese Michel was raised.

Anneliese was a devout Catholic but in 1968, she was diagnosed as epileptic following such symptoms as rigidity, contortions and paralysis. During a short stay in a psychiatric hospital Anneliese began having hallucinations, during which she would claim to have seen demonic faces, which led her to believe that she was possessed by demons. In 1973, Anneliese and her parents asked their parish priest if there were any spiritual cures for what she was suffering under and, fulfilling the criteria of the rite of exorcism, they and their bishop authorised an exorcism, calling on Pastor Arnold Renz, an experience exorcist, and Father Ernst Alt to conduct the rite, beginning in 1975. Almost a year later, though, Anneliese was dead from what the autopsy report described as malnutrition and dehydration and Pastor Renz, Father Alt and Anneliese's parents were all tried for negligent homicide. In their defence, they played tapes that had been recorded during the various exorcisms, which apparently showed the six demons within Anneliese arguing as well as her speaking in languages that she could not have known. Not even in death was Anneliese left in peace as her body was exhumed shortly before the trial began following word that a Carmelite nun had a vision that Anneliese's body had not deteriorated after death but, to date, any apparent miracle has not be substantiated by the Catholic Church.

The action may have been moved to the United States of America and Anneliese may have been renamed Emily Rose but, otherwise, the two stories are almost identical with both cases ending up in a courtroom. Billed by its director as the first courtroom horror - the real-life divorce proceedings in the Rosalyn Jocelyne Wildenstein case may have pipped him to that claim - this is both evidence of some invention as well as the weighty problem that drags the film back to the ground every time that it looks to soar. The main problem with taking the film to a courtroom is twofold - the first is that it looks for some proof of the supernatural, never presenting it, as in The Exorcist, as real but as something for psychiatry and the Catholic Church to wrangle over. Faith, being faith, is often intangible and the cyclical arguments within the courtroom lead to the film chasing its tail, never actually proving anything beyond reasonable doubt, more that it throws a lot at the audience in the hope that belief or prejudices will cause some to stick long after it's over.

Secondly, we're experienced enough with courtroom dramas to know that we ought to be rooting for one side of the argument whilst knowing the other will be presented as almost in arms with the criminals or, in this case, the devil himself. With Erin Bruner being presented as human, full of weaknesses, doubts and frustrated ambition, we're left with the tight-lipped, mean-spirited Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), the District Attorney's star prosecutor as the lead-footed villain, who despite describing himself as a man of faith, apparently fails to make the leap into truly believing in Emily, being that his Methodist faith has left him unprepared for the rich sources of wickedness fought by the more valiant Catholic Church. In particular, Thomas is shown as being increasingly petty as the film progresses, often pointlessly objecting to courtroom tests of faith without any explanation of his actions, with his final sneer to Father Moore being the point at which short-sighted Methodism is almost revealed as nothing compared to the far-reaching vision of Catholicism. Not that it may ever happen but should anyone be in a bind as regards converting to Methodism or Catholicism, The Exorcism of Emily Rose will see them convinced of the latter with Campbell Scott playing Ethan Thomas in such a way that would not attract the backing of the Methodist Church.

That said, the use of flashbacks works well, in particular that which shows the actual exorcism and of Emily suffering under possession, which comes out of the courtroom testimony of Father Moore during which he plays a cassette recording of his first attempt at exorcising Emily. As Emily frees herself from bed, crashes through the window and spooks the horses in her father's shed, Father Moore follows her demanding that she give the names of the six demons within her. Emily replies in various languages - Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic - and, like the Anneliese Michel recordings, there's apparent evidence of two demons arguing before she tells the priest that she is possessed by the six demons who were also within Cain, Nero and Judas before saying, "I am Lucifer, the Devil in the flesh!"

Even there, though, there's the sense of the film cutting corners to advance the rather simplified retelling of the Anneliese Michel story. As in real life as well as The Exorcist, it would be rare for a parish priest to be given authority to carry out the exorcism themselves, more than the Catholic Church would demand someone more experienced in such matters and that they would be assisted by a second member of the clergy. Father Moore goes from apparent novice to expert within a matter of minutes, arguing with six demons from Hell where one suspects anyone that inexperienced would be running in fright. In itself, it's not a bad scene but the PG-13 horrors are sufficiently tame so as not to trouble one's sleeping.

Yet the film ought to be congratulated for avoiding comparisons with The Exorcist. If anything, it may be closer to the actual truth of an exorcism as it avoids the spinning head, levitation, masturbation and aggressive swearing of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty's creation in favour of something less sensational. But then, having set itself apart, it falls back on hokey chills, such as a shadowy figure outside of Father Moore's cell, a dark figure seen only by Dr. Cartwright (Duncan Fraser), Erin Bruner getting woken up at 3am by noises in her apartment. There's even some history to Bruner's character in her helping to get a man set free, which haunts her as he strikes again, killing another family, during her defence of Father Moore. Were it not for Laura Linney's spirited performance, both vulnerable and with a steely ambition, The Exorcism of Emily Rose would have stumbled as a courtroom drama as much as it does as a horror film.

There's rather too much here and not all of it works. There are moments, of course, such as the demonic faces seen by Emily Rose or the actual exorcism but the film wanders between such scenes without actually wanting to commit itself. Where The Exorcist, for all of its shocking moments, was a film that was convinced of the good within the Catholic Church, The Exorcism of Emily Rose ends with a verdict designed not to offend but without really satisfying anyone. On this evidence, the upcoming Requiem, the film by Hans Christian Schmid, may well be the definitive telling of the Anneliese Michel story, which this, despite the similarities, is so clearly not.



Transfer

The Exorcism of Emily Rose was filmed with an attractively bleak look, best captured by the fog that surrounds her as, the morning after the exorcism, she walks out beyond her parents' farm where she collapses. Where what we see of the landscape should have a clarity to it, the DVD is a disappointment as it's obviously soft, often blurred and distracting when looking for emotion in faces that are so indistinct that lines are no longer visible. Some of this is, no doubt, due to it being a Region 2 release, which never seem to look as good as Region 1, but given that the actual direction is pedestrian, a good image might have enlivened the film on DVD. Unfortunately, though, this wasn't to be and even on a standard television set, the flaws in the image are apparent.

The soundtrack is a little better, though, offering only a Dolby Digital surround track but not one that's at all shabby. Although the courtroom scenes won't impress anyone, the exorcism as well as the scenes in which Emily is haunted by her visions make good use of a surround sound system with all of the main channels being used to throw the demons talking through Emily around the room, suggesting that she is indeed possessed and that, like Anneliese Michel, the demons are arguing with one another.



Extras

Commentary: Scott Derrickson is on his own for this track in which he repeats much from the production featurettes but also adds further scene-specific explanations of where his film was shot, how the visual effects were created and how cheap some of his film's surprises were. Along the way, he admits a debt to Dario Argento and Vittorio Storaro in his use of colour, explains his research into the Anneliese Michel story and other cases of possession and how concerned he was with appearing to take too his cue from The Exorcist, leaving a commentary that's full of information but lacking in spirit, with Derrickson often nice but quite dull.

Deleted Scene (2m42s): A small aside cut from the main film, this scene sees Erin Bruner pick up a guy in a bar before inviting him home, which she immediately regrets and asks him to leave. Director Scott Derrickson offers a commentary for this scene explaining his reasons for cutting it from the feature.

Featurettes: As well as a Play All option, these three featurettes can be viewed separately and opening with Genesis of the Story (19m49s), writer/director Scott Derrickson and writer Paul Harris Boardman, discuss their work as not only an entertainment but as something to make their audience think about their beliefs. Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney, Campbell Scott and Jennifer Carpenter are all on hand to back this up before the second featurette, Casting the Movie (12m24s), discusses their casting. Linney sums up her scepticism with, "These movies can be absolutely godawful" before the rest of the main cast appear sounding more enthusiastic for such religious horrors.

Finally, with the film having such an beautifully downbeat look, Visual Design (18m59s) ought to have been more interesting than it is but there's still enough in it to be worth a watch, particularly that the look of the film was based on the paintings of Francis Bacon but, disappointingly, the feature doesn't actually illustrate this with examples.

Finally, there are trailers for Into The Blue (2m02s), Mirror Mask (1m07s), Stealth (1m58s) and The Fog (1m36s).



Overall

There's a moment in this film that, oddly, I can testify as once having happened. During Father Moore's first visit with Emily, a crucifix hung on the wall in her family's living room turns upside down, a suggestion of the inversion of the figure of Christ by the demons within Emily. Whilst at school - a Catholic school, which had a crucifix within each classroom - we were once all surprised, if not exactly shocked, to have heard the clink of ceramic breaking and striking the floor, only to find that only did the figure of Christ become inverted but that the head had become separated from the rest of the body, flown four or five feet up the classroom and struck someone on the back of the head.

If there was anyone who didn't cry, "Satan!" in the seconds thereafter, it may only have been because they were struck dumb at seeing the power of the devil at work. Or it may have been from laughing, everything else is clear but for that.

That's not necessarily a moment more terrifying than any in The Exorcism of Emily Rose but if you've seen the trailer, you've probably already seen all of the most effective ones. The exorcism itself isn't bad but it's a very safe horror and one that's a world away from the religious terrors of The Exorcist or The Omen. Anyone who'd list either as their favourite horrors may have some interest in The Exorcism of Emily Rose but it's a far cry from either, being more Petrocelli than Pazuzu.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:03:40

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