‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ based loosely on a true story

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The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is one of those rare modern-day horror films that actually thrills. Unlike most recent entries in the genre, the film does not rely on overdone violence and grotesque images to scare its audience.

Instead, it uses story and atmosphere to create hysteria and mounting suspense. The film has a great story to tell, and it tells it well.

This is possibly the first horror film ever set mostly in a courtroom. The film chronicles the trial of a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson.) He is accused of negligence that resulted in the death of 19-year-old Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), whom he believed was possessed by demonic spirits.

A lawyer (Laura Linney) whose star is rising takes the case at the behest of her boss. Unfortunately, he seems more interested in serving the interests of the local Catholic diocese than that of the client, who refuses to take a plea bargain because he wants to tell Emily’s story in court and let the jury (and the audience) decide what really happened.

The possession and exorcism scenes all take place in flashback while various parties give their testimony. This technique allows the film to portray Emily’s suffering a la’ Rashomon, but with a significant difference: There is little disagreement about what actually happened to Emily. It is all a question of interpretation.

By giving us the facts as seen through the eyes of the various characters, the film is asking the audience to be the jury that decides the case. All of the information that is provided is intentionally left out in the open for the viewers.

The exorcism scenes are scary and creepy, but they are not of the pea soup-spewing kind. The film tries to ground itself in the reality believed in by the priest who is on trial for Emily’s murder, so the horror is more psychological than grotesque.

The courtroom aspect of the film may put off some horror fans, but I think it works extremely well and results in a great deal of tension and suspense, albeit very few, if any, surprises.

Structuring the story as a courtroom drama increases the horror because it takes place in a believable context. Whether you think Emily is sick or possessed, what happens to her is almost beyond endurance. Moreover, since the fate of the priest rests on the trial’s outcome, it is clear that the horrific events in the story have dramatic consequences. What happens is part of a convincing story, not just a series of gratuitous special effects.

If anyone has seen the trailers for the film, they probably thought this was the sort of violent horror film I mentioned earlier. It is far from it. In fact, this is a very well-made thriller that has many suspenseful supernatural moments, and does not go for the cheap scares and predictability many audiences are used to.

The trailer is obviously designed to draw in the cheesy horror fans, but there is something more intelligent in this film and most of them will be bored, disappointed, or both.

The performances in the film are top-notch, with Wilkinson’s turn as the exposed priest is heartbreaking, while Linney and Campbell Scott are fantastic as dueling lawyers.

The real standout is Jennifer Carpenter (“White Chicks”), who plays Emily Rose. She has quite a bit of silent screen time and pulls it off well without “demon” makeup,” just contorted faces, uncomfortable postures and nerve-shattering screams. She is creepy, yet vulnerable. She is scary yet innocent. She gave an amazing performance.

Although the credits claim that the film is “based on a true story,” there seems to be just a bare fragment of truth in its script. Before the end credits, a title card tells us that the priest involved with the story cooperated with an author who wrote the book that served as the basis for the film.

Screenwriters Scott Derrickson (who also directed) and Paul Harris Boardman purchased the rights, but neither the book nor the author are credited.

The book is in fact “The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel,” and the only point of similarity between the actual events and the film is that a young woman dies during an exorcism and that the priest is put on trial for negligent homicide.

It seems clear that in the actual case, the young woman’s death did result from negligence. She died from malnutrition after undergoing a series of exorcisms for months.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is definitely a film worth seeing. It may not be fast-paced enough for some horror fans and a little rough for others because of the subject matter, but it is certainly a fascinating film presented with dignity.

Sahag Gureghian can be reached at ane@sundial.csun.edu.