The religious horror picture The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Screen Gems) is the latest and tackiest assault on the reality-based secular community—just the kind of propaganda that’s not supposed to be coming from ultraliberalcommiejewfag Hollywood. It goes even further than the religious horror picture Signs, which suggests that if you don’t believe in God you can’t possibly protect your kids from demonic aliens. This one says that if you believe in medical science over prayer, you not only can’t protect your kids, you suppress the spiritual antibodies they need to fight the devil. Take a pill and you’re all Satan’s.
The movie is basically a blood-soaked Christian martyr tale (complete with stigmata) that masquerades as a Rashômon-like courtroom drama. It’s loosely based on a real tragedy: the death of a young German woman in the early ‘70s in the course of an exorcism. The locale is now rural, farmhouse America—a big, old, isolated house beside a gnarly tree that looks like it’s going to stand in at some point for Gethsemane. (It does.) Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) left that home and family for college, thereby exposing her supersensitive self to the forces of evil.
The movie begins with the arrival of a coroner (for no particular reason he’s lit like Father Merrin in The Exorcist) and the arrest of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) for allowing Emily Rose to both waste away and tear herself apart. Even without the hissing obscenities pouring out of her, she’s a bigger fright in death than in life. Father Moore could plead guilty to criminal negligence and be sentenced to a year in prison (six months with good behavior—and he doesn’t look like the sort of man who would smush inmates’ faces in their food), but he chooses to go to trial to “tell Emily’s story.”
His high-priced defender, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), is hired by the archdiocese to make sure that his story isn’t shared with a secular public, which might think that the church is composed of wackos. Although Americans believe in God by a whopping margin and in angels and demons by a sizable majority, Scott Derrickson, the director and co-writer (with Paul Harris Boardman), depicts a country in which belief is in peril, under attack by science and the law and pesky facts. A man of God hasn’t a prayer.
While the district attorney has shrewdly appointed a churchgoing prosecutor (Campbell Scott) who nonetheless believes in the rigid separation of church and state, Erin is an agnostic, a heavy drinker, and a careerist who has just won a not-guilty verdict for an apparent murderer. Success in this trial will mean a partnership in her firm—and her conversion to Father Moore’s cause will mean a partnership in a Higher Firm. It’s a pity that all this exposition is written with such clunkiness that it would make George Lucas yelp, and that Erin’s change of spirit is never dramatized. But the dialogue is rattled off at a screwball-newspaper-comedy clip, the better to propel us into the courtroom and the hellish flashbacks.
Derrickson claims in interviews that Rashômon is one of his favorite movies and that The Exorcism of Emily Rose gives both sides of the court battle their due. If you believe that, I have a grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary that you might want to buy. We do get flashes—almost subliminal ones—of the prosecutor’s version of events, but he’s a close-minded prig whose mere facts are far outweighed by extended sequences that leave no doubt whatsoever of Emily Rose’s demonic possession.
And not only Emily’s. Father Moore warns Erin that “dark forces surround this trial,” and she is promptly beset by demons that rattle her windows and stop her watch at 3 a.m. (the devil’s hour, as opposed to 3 p.m., when Jesus was said to have been crucified). Erin does, however, find a gold chain on the ground with her full initials, which suggests that Someone Up There likes her.
Laughable as it often is, The Exorcism of Emily Rose features striking makeup and effects (faces of passersby run like Munchian screamers), along with scary compositions. They’re derivative, though—not just of The Exorcist but of Carrie (Emily Rose stands drenched in a church with her arms rigid and slightly askew) and The Blair Witch Project (the jittery, hand-held camerawork when she bounds out of the farmhouse in mid-exorcism). Even more over-the-top is the soundtrack, with its gnashing and moans and winds and squeaky hinges. Boy, they must have had a ball in the mixing room.
For all its cheap ghost-movie effects, the film aspires to something larger: the idea—one of the chief talking points for proponents of Intelligent Design as their “scholarship” is shot down—that even if we can’t scientifically prove the existence of the Almighty (and the demons who try to undo his work), we must open ourselves to that possibility and recognize it as valid. Certainly it is as valid as that other, godless way of looking at the world. And it’s more imperative: We dismiss the battle for our souls at our peril.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose has an outlandish trump card: the ineffectiveness of an anti-convulsive drug called Gambitrol prescribed by clueless physicians for epileptic seizures. An anthropologist (Shohreh Aghdashloo)—a sort of scientist, but an open-minded one, obviously familiar with the kind of spooky occurrences that gave Father Merrin the willies—theorizes that the exorcism didn’t work because Gambitrol dulled Emily Rose, leaving her without the wits and mental resources to wage the fight against the devil from within.
But—and this is a SPOILER, folks—this doesn’t turn out to be so bad. For, in her death, Emily Rose can prove that demons are real and, therefore, so is God.
The movie’s overriding themes aren’t novel. Many biblical scholars (even those without Doubt) have argued that one reason Christianity took hold in the Western World was the church’s insistence that demons—and their overlord, Satan—exist. They needed demons to make God a necessity, not a luxury. Meanwhile, The Exorcism of Emily Rose takes us back about four centuries, to when mental illness was often interpreted as demonic possession.
All this highfalutin stuff has almost made me forget to say that the acting in this movie is unusually bad—atrocious, even. The exceptions are Carpenter, who wails and contorts herself impressively, and Linney, whose line readings suggest an intelligence that belies her acceptance of her role. Wilkinson retreats into himself and is mysteriously wooden, as if he realized in midstream what he’d gotten into and is trying to will himself to a higher plane. Aghdashloo speaks with all the authority of Zsa-Zsa Gabor. Apart from Henry Czerny as a physician, there isn’t a grace note to be had.
In fairness, I should disclose one thing: I was born at 3 a.m. Could it be that the devil put me on this earth to raise objections to movies like The Passion of the Christ and The Exorcism of Emily Rose? As I mulled this over in the screening room, about an hour into the film, a priest sat down in the seat next to me, and I felt a sudden, demonic urge to strike him. In my defense, this was because his cell phone was going off. But still: It might have been Satan on the other end of the line, reaching out to me. I resisted, though. I’m not on any medication.