This peculiar attempt to cross-breed the horror film with a courtroom drama — sort of Perry Mason and the Case of the Howling Teen or Inherit the Demon — has gotten high marks (for a horror picture) from some critics just for its trying to be different. But really, it isn’t even a case of “Close, but no crucifix.” The girl one row behind me put it succinctly upon the film’s conclusion: “That was the freakin’ stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.”
Emily Rose gets off on the wrong foot by announcing that it’s “based on a true story” — words that are, as usual, more chilling than the film that follows. And, as usual, that claim is true in only the loosest possible sense.
The real Emily Rose was a German girl named Annaliese Michel and the events in question dragged out over about six years (1970-76), five of which involved her deciding she was possessed and trying to get the church to agree, while the exorcisms (plural) took place for about a year. All Emily Rose offers is the sketchiest version of this, while neatly sidestepping the fact that her family’s big push for an exorcism just happened to kick in at the same time that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist appeared on the scene. This in itself doesn’t cause the film to crash and burn as a horror movie, but it does illustrate its basic falseness.
The real problem (though hardly the only one) with Emily Rose is that it’s unbelievably dull and cheesy — and stupefyingly unpersuasive. How dull? Well, about 80 percent of the movie takes place in the drabbest courtroom imaginable, with people weighing in on the pros and cons of demonic possession and whether the Rev. Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest responsible for the exorcism, is guilty of homicidal negligence.
This isn’t just boring, it often makes little sense. The testimony of an anthropologist (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog) tries to make possession a reality and a psychiatric condition at the same time. The screenplay can’t settle on just when Emily (Jennifer Carpenter, White Chicks) stopped taking her medication. The prosecution makes it sound like she stopped as soon as she spoke to Moore, but it’s later made out that she was still taking her meds at the time of the actual exorcism. Surely, the defense would have cleared this up right away, but they don’t.
A psychiatrist (TV actor Duncan Fraser) who finally agrees to testify is beset by demons and promptly walks in front of an oncoming car (with a strangely non-safety-glass windscreen), but the defense never even explains why their surprise witness doesn’t show up. There are numerous references to Emily having periods of normalcy after the possession starts, but we never see them.
The big drama is apparently supposed to be grounded in the idea that the prosecutor (played by a glowering Campbell Scott) is a fervent Christian, while the defending attorney (played by a slumming Laura Linney) is a shaky agnostic. It’s not very dramatic — not in the least because the prosecutor is less likable than Fredric March’s William Jennings Bryan clone in Inherit the Wind.
As for the limited horror content … it’s pretty weak, with most of it looking like director Derrickson has spent way too much time watching Dario Argento movies. Everything “supernatural” — which objectively amounts to a possessed pencil holder and some unruly sheets — tends to be set at the college Emily attends and is bathed in orange light. The limited CGI effects of “scary” faces were all included in the film’s trailer and are every bit as funny in the movie proper.
The actual possession scenes aren’t any less cheese-encrusted, and all too often poor Emily looks like she’s practicing to enter a limbo contest — and seeing her chow down on a palpably fake spider isn’t any more persuasive. Worse, Emily is given absolutely no personality, so there’s never any reason to actually care about her.
The idea that the movie is attempting merely to put forth the possibility that possession is real comes off as self-intellectualizing twaddle on the part of the filmmakers, since the film never really leaves any room for doubt on that score as Emily Rose plunges into visions of the Virgin Mary, stigmata and the revelation that Emily has no less than six demons inside her. (Does this last make her the human equivalent of Victor Wong’s “Six Demon Bag” in Big Trouble in Little China?)
You want a possession movie? Go rent Friedkin’s The Exorcist (preferably the 2000 version) or better still Exorcist author William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III. Even Renny Harlin’s Exorcist IV is better than this. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, including intense/frightening sequences and disturbing images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke