In 1976 the family of young German student, Anneliese Michel, believed her to be possessed. Their parish priest attempted an exorcism which failed, leaving the poor girl dead. The priest was tried for negligent manslaughter. In 2005, writer-director Scott Derrickson brings us The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a courtroom drama cum chiller based on those events, and shifted to the USA. But it’s not just the ever-dependable Tom Wilkinson, as Father Moore, that’s on trial. It’s us too. Because this is not a scare fest but a challenging reflection on reason and the supernatural.
Exorcism is a thoughtfully structured movie, beginning with the arrest of Father Moore after Emily’s death. As the court case begins, we see Emily’s story in flashback. But is she possessed or just a victim of epilepsy or psychotic disorder? Ultimately, Exorcism lets you decide. The flashbacks are cleverly open to different interpretations, giving both fact and faith a chance. And when agnostic lawyer (Laura Linney) takes up the defence, is she really being spiritually attacked, as Father Moore says, or is there another explanation?
Forget The Exorcist, forget The Omen. In fact forget any other spooky movie. For The Exorcism of Emily Rose is quite different. Without gore, violence or The Exorcist’s yucky make-up, Derrickson’s movie achieves its chills in short, sharp bursts grounded in the real world. No wall-crawling, or 360° head-turnings here. But plenty of seat-grippingly effective contortions, thanks to Jennifer Carpenter’s impressive physical performance as Emily. The blink-and-miss-it transformation of classmates and passersby is chillingly done too. So far, so creepy.
But if you’re hoping for a nerve-shredder of a movie, you’ll be disappointed because this is mainly a court-room drama with chills chucked in. Intelligent, literate and well acted (particularly by Linney), this is a talky take on the horror genre. That’s both a blessing and a bane. While trying to keep it even-handed, Derrickson can’t let rip with the supernatural spooky stuff that made other slowburning chillers (The Ring, Dark Water, Sixth Sense) such a success. But the cake-and-eat-it approach is still fulfilling because horror fan Derrickson knows how to unsettle as well as engage the brain.
He takes his time though, and Exorcism is a little flat in places. But the film looks great, atmospheric visuals adding to the unease. From the frosty mood of the opening, there are shades of grey everywhere, appropriate to the film’s theme. And while it doesn’t always avoid cliché (creepy corridors and things going bang), it is true to its neutral tone, using music sparingly and to good effect.
If you don’t like scary movies, don’t be put off by the title. Ironically, you’ll probably enjoy it more than the average horror junkie as Exorcism isn’t a horror film. It’s a thoughtful piece of spooky entertainment that makes you think about life, the universe and just how shallow some scary films can be.