As I once mentioned in my review of the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, there are any number of similarities between that film and 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. To begin with, both pictures star Laura Linney, one of Hollywood’s preeminent mainstream actresses of the early 21st century, here in a brace of unusual horror outings. Both are products of the Screen Gems/Lakeshore Entertainment production company, and both deal with supernatural events that are purportedly based on real-life incidents. Both films go far in convincing the viewer of the possibility of the bizarre happenings portrayed as being genuine and real (unknowable, highly advanced life forms watching over mankind in the first; demonic possession in the latter), and both, strangely, clock in at precisely 119 minutes.
But whereas Mothman retains its real-life setting and historical basis — the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on 12/15/67, but updating it to modern times — the latter film changes its based-on-fact setting entirely. The film is drawn from the case of Anneliese Michel, a 23-year-old German woman who underwent a series of exorcisms — 67, to be exact! — from 1975 – ’76. Michel was convinced that her seizures and depression were a result of demonic possession, and ultimately died, as does Emily in the film, of malnutrition. But the film transfers its action to the American heartland, condenses the 67 sessions to one terrifying one, and changes the victim’s age to 19. As in real life, the priest who officiated over the exorcism of Emily Rose is put on trial for negligent homicide. And defending Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) in court is a rising hotshot lawyer named Erin Bruner (our Laura Linney), a confirmed agnostic who enters the case with nothing but incredulity as regards Satanism, demons, possessions and the lot. But as the film’s memorable final moments show, the facts of the case go far in shaking her long-held beliefs … and those, most likely, of many viewers!
I find it remarkable how many reviewers have complained about how Emily Rose cleaves into two fairly discrete kinds of film: a horror film and the central courtroom drama. Even the esteemed Maltin Movie Guide remarks that the film is a “peculiar mix of horror movie and courtroom melodrama (that is) unconvincing on all levels.” Well, all I can say is, I must be more easily entertained or easily convinced than others, because I thought the picture featured some highly fascinating, well-staged, brilliantly scripted and perfectly acted courtroom sequences, as well as truly terrifying scenes of shocking horror. Of course, the lion’s share of the credit for the double-pronged success of the film must go to director Scott Derrickson, the two actors already named — Linney really is remarkably good; truly, one of the best we’ve got right now — as well as to Campbell Scott, as the feisty prosecuting attorney, and Jennifer Carpenter as poor Emily. How convincing Carpenter is as the possessed farm girl; much more so than Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil in 1973’s The Exorcist, and without the assistance of foul language and regurgitated pea soup! Another factor that gives Emily Rose an edge over the 1973 film: Whereas Regan was possessed by only one entity, Emily is possessed by Lucifer himself … in addition to five other demons! And, as we are led to believe, the epilepsy medication that she has wrongfully been given makes it virtually impossible for any exorcism to be successful on her … a horrifying situation of a sextuple nature.
But over and above the ghastly exorcism sequence and the many trials that Emily undergoes, what might chill the spines of many viewers the most might be this notion of waking up at precisely 3 a.m. It was at that moment when Emily is first attacked by her demons, and when Bruner and Father Moore awaken each night to supernatural visitants. As Moore explains in the film, 3 a.m. is the “demonic witching hour … a way for demons to mock the Holy Trinity … an inversion of 3 p.m., the miracle hour, which is traditionally accepted as the hour of Christ’s death.” I defy any viewer to watch this film and then not be concerned about waking up at 3:00 a.m. on the dot! I see a lot of horror films, as my reviews here will testify, and never have the slightest nightmares or qualms after watching any of them. Emily Rose, however, cost me a good night’s sleep, and when I recently awoke at 3:01 a.m., it was with the distinct feeling of having narrowly averted … something. Such is the power and effectiveness of this truly unsettling film. “It scared the hell out of me,” Father Moore says at one point during the picture, a reaction that I have a feeling will be shared by many viewers. Yes, Emily Rose, unlike most, gave me a sleepless night, and I can think of no higher praise for a horror film!