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Atypical horror film fails to deliver scares

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, September 14, 2005

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” sets itself up for failure before the audience even begins to watch the movie.

Had the title been changed, so as not to include “exorcism” in the title, it arguably could have fared better. However, as soon as any movie-goer hears the title, William Friedkin’s bar-setting “The Exorcist” is immediately brought to mind, and comparisons between the two movies are inevitable. As a horror film, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” pales in comparison to the fear evoked in “The Exorcist,” but it is successful as a courtroom drama, bringing to the forefront the debate of science versus religion.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is based on the true events surrounding the German college student Anneliese Michel, who in the 1970s was the subject of one the rare exorcisms sanctioned by the Catholic Church in modern times. Following the exorcism, Anneliese died of starvation and as a result her parents and the priests involved in the exorcism were put on trial for negligence leading to manslaughter.

In this film, Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) leaves her rural town in order to attend the city college on a scholarship, where she begins to show signs of possession. The local pastor, Father Moore (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s” Tom Wilkinson), is called in after Emily returns home, as she is unable to function within the college setting. He receives permission from the archdiocese and the rituals of exorcism are performed, eventually leading to Emily’s death.

The movie’s main emphasis is not on the events leading up to, and surrounding, the exorcism itself, as in “The Exorcist,” but instead on the trial of Father Moore. Laura Linney (“Mystic River”) plays the agnostic defending attorney of Father Moore, whose own beliefs are called into question as the trial progresses. The scenes of the actual possession and exorcism are shown through flashbacks as the events are recounted at the trial.

While the movie brings to light numerous thought-provoking questions of the issues surrounding faith versus science, the film never really seems to reach its full potential. The character development of Emily Rose leaves much to be desired, and there were some poor decisions made regarding her scenes of possession. While they definitely had the potential to be truly terrifying, and at times almost are, they usually fall flat, mostly due to the subtitles.

When Emily starts speaking in tongues, the filmmakers provide subtitles for her, which caused the audience to react with laughter rather than fear. The film also skims the surfaces of other points that could have used better development. The viewer is led to believe that Laura Linney’s character is beginning to experience some of the signs of possession, but that plotline never really goes anywhere.

Another area that could have been further developed, and would’ve been highly interesting, concerns the reaction of the Catholic Church. In both the film and the real-life incident, the Church backed out and refused to defend its priest, to whom it had given permission for the exorcism. This is mentioned only briefly in the movie, though it was an intriguing point that would’ve benefited from more attention.

While “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” definitely stands apart from other movies in its genre, it never manages to stand on its own two feet.

Audiences looking for a typical horror movie are sure to be disappointed, and those looking for a taut courtroom drama will be less disappointed, but still not entirely satisfied.