I thought The Exorcism of Emily Rose was an excellent demonic possession film. Like every other film of that type it is a “true account” of an actual exorcism that took place for over ten months in Germany in 1976. Unlike those other films, however, this one was heavy on courtroom drama and very light on green slime. And for that reason, if for no other, I found this story to be a credible one. Not only that, it was pretty damned scary.
Emily Rose (played by the awesome Jennifer Carpenter, of “Dexter” fame) is a young college student enjoying her freshman year when strange events begin to plague her – she wakes up at 3:00 A.M. and smells something burning; out in the hall a door opens and closes itself; objects in her room get knocked over, and an invisible, heavy weight presses down on her in bed and chokes her. (It’s never spelled out, but I’m guessing this is when the actual possession takes place.) It gets progressively worse after that – she can’t eat, hallucinates that the people at school have demonic faces, and ends up in the hospital, diagnosed with epilepsy.
Eventually her family concludes she is possessed and asks their parish priest, Father Moore, to perform an exorcism. Unfortunately, Emily’s physical condition has deteriorated so badly that she dies during the ritual.
So far this has been a pretty standard tale. But when Emily dies, and the medical examiner says it wasn’t from natural causes, the state decides to prosecute the priest for negligent homicide.
The trial pits a religious prosecutor against an agnostic defense attorney who is hoping to make partner at her firm with this case. The prosecutor (played by the delightful Campbell Scott) drags in one medical expert after another to contend that Emily was both epileptic and psychotic. The defense attorney, who has been having some unnerving 3:00 A.M. experiences of her own, decides to go balls-to-the-wall on her courtroom strategy – what if Emily really was possessed by a demon, she asks the jury. What if she was never epileptic, nor psychotic, but instead actually possessed by a demon. Wouldn’t the priest’s actions then be reasonable and right?
This was a very interesting movie to me. For one thing, it took an outrageous premise – demonic possession – and, instead of going for the gore and the slime and the Indian burial grounds tropes, they went in the opposite direction. They asked, What would it be like in the modern era if someone died during an exorcism ritual? The answer is obvious – there would be an arrest, a trial and prison for the exorcist. The fifthteenth century and the twenty-first century just collided – BOOM.
So between this realistic setting and the amazing restraint the filmmakers showed by not slathering us all in green Jello and ketchup, I thought The Exorcism of Emily Rose – and the story it was based on – may actually have happened.
And if that’s not cool beans, then I don’t know what is.