I mean, I find it troubling to consider how deeply conservative our society and art have become, even since the already-conservative 1980s, when the single-most common shot in a horror film was a woman taking off her shirt (and the second-most common shot was a couple of teenagers smoking weed.) Today, relegated to PG-13, horror can't get away with showing either shot, alas. And the horror genre should always be cutting edge; always one step ahead of where society knows it is. Instead, what I see in most horror films of recent vintage (like White Noise, for instance) is horror playing it safe, and depending primarily on CGI special effects.
But this debate is all prologue. I went to see The Exorcism of Emily Rose not expecting much in terms of quality or horror because a.) I knew it was PG-13 and b.) I'm old enough to remember the late Robert Wise's very good Audrey Rose (1977), a film concerning the legal ramifications of re-incarnation and spirit possession, and I figured this movie was just a sorry Hollywood retread.
I was wrong on both counts.
Simply stated, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of the finest and most unique horror films to come out of Hollywood since 1999, when The Blair Witch Project broke the mold of audience expectations both in technique and subject matter, and went on to become a blockbuster. Emily Rose's screenplay, would - at first glance - appear to be littered with land mines, dependant on two genres that can easily become cliched, the first horror, the second, the courtroom drama. Amazingly, the director and co-writer, Scott Derrickson, avoids the cliches and melodrama (for the most part), and instead forges a film of undeniable power, and quite a bit of creepiness.
In this space just days ago, I wrote with considerable irritation about the WB's new series, Supernatural, and its disappointing approach to horror: taking the supernatural for granted and playing it with all the consistency (and boredom...) of the Mob. The Exorcism of Emily Rose doesn't repeat this kind of basic mistake, and in dramatizing the tale of a young woman (played by Jennifer Carpenter) who may have been possessed, leaves the door wide open for other, more mundane possibilities.
Since much of the film involves a priest, Father Moore, on trial for "negligent homicide" during Emily's exorcism, the story of Emily's life is told in flashbacks. I generally don't like a flashback structure unless it is somehow used to fracture a narrative in interesting ways (think Pulp Fiction; or even John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars), but the flashbacks work well in this film, in part because director Derrickson has - in many cases - given us two versions of the same events. In other words, one flashback encourages the "possession" angle of the story; the next encourages the idea that Emily was an epileptic, given to body-contorting spasms, and possibly psychotic. Similarly, the priest who failed to exorcise her, played by the brilliant Tom Wilkerson, believes that wounds on her hand are stigmata, signs of God's handiwork. We see that explanation in one flashback. Yet in another, we get a contrary view: that Emily intentionally gouged her hands on a barbed wire fence. This is precisely the kind of ambiguity, duelling world-perspectives I wanted to see so badly in Supernatural; the acknowledgment that our world can't be reduced easily to one answer or another. Here, the film's framework is medical/psychiatric vs. supernatural/religious explanations, and the parameters of this debate hold the film in good standing throughout. By revealing to us alternatives, Derrickson gives the horror genre its very own Rashomon (1950), and audiences get to choose what they believe. This isn't a film that forces answers down your throat, and I like that, because too often Hollywood films want to tell you EVERYTHING.
This "choosing" is an important part of the film's climax. Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, the lawyer defending Father Moore against charges of negligent homicide, and her closing statement is a metaphor for the film itself. She doesn't ask the jury to believe the incredible story of possession (and in a sense, we're all the jury, those who watch this movie...) but instead, merely entertain the idea that there are some things in this world which medicine can't diagnose. And more to the point, that Father Moore and Emily Rose certainly believed in the phenomena of demonic possession. I thought this was all brilliantly well-done, and Laura Linney is fantastic in the part of an open-minded agnostic.
Another strength of the film is Jennifer Carpenter's performance as Emily. This is a performer who can appear completely normal one moment, then stark raving mad the next; and sometimes the shifts are literally that fast. I found her characterization and physicality in this role quite believable; and she boasts a vulnerability (an important characteristic for a possessed "hyper sensitive") that is quite fetching. Carpenter is aided by outstanding but subdued special effects. When Emily begins to see demons, the effects are terrifying, but the film is always quick to clarify that we are being told what Emily believed she saw; not that which actually existed. And the exorcism itself - unlike perhaps the greatest horror film ever made - The Exorcist - is again, open to interpretation. Emily Rose's head doesn't spin around, but her neck does contort, her joints freeze, and her pupils go black. Interestingly, every one of these "manifestations" of possession is easily explained by medical science; again giving audiences two distinct perspectives on what happened.
If The Exorcism of Emily Rose falters any one place, it is in trying to keep the "scares" going. When the film opens, Emily Rose is already dead, the exorcism having failed. The film attempts to generate suspense and terror in the present (during the trial...) by having Linney's character, Erin, experience her own brush with evil. This is an unnecessary and contradictory part of the film; precious screen time that could have been better spent on flashbacks of Emily's home life; her first days away at college, the relationship with her first boyfriend, Jason, etc. (all important indicators of how either mental illness or possession developed...). Had this film aspired to be great art, like The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original), it would have made the lawyers less-important characters, and instead, simply focused on their arguments, and flashbacks that support them. A cool, detached, intellectual approach, carefully revealing each side of the medicine/supernatural debate would have made for an even more thoughtful film, and one infinitely more frightening on a cerebral level. Yet perhaps that is too much to expect out of Hollywood horror today, which insists on the cat scare (a cat jumps at an unwitting victim), CGI special effects, and other predictabilities.
Still, within the boundaries Hollywood and our time set up for it, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a minor miracle, a film that brilliantly and intelligently examines the debate about the role of medicine and religion in our culture, just as end of life/abortion/intelligent design fights are brewing everywhere from Florida to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of John Roberts. I suppose "scary" is a subjective thing, but I also found the film very frightening, and at times, subtly so. I highly recommend it, and only wish that the film could have been even more dispassionate, more even-handed.
But then it would have been an indie, I guess, and not the blockbuster it has already proven to be. Still, it's one of the best horror movies of the new millennium, and for that, we can be grateful.