Ever since The Exorcist recognized the potential of demonic forces and opened up a whole new territory of dread --- familiarly known as Hell on Earth --- which the makers of horror flicks quickly explored, Satan in one manifestation or another became a frequent menace in the form.
The devil and/or his assistants inhabit a number of significant films, including the several sequels to The Exorcist itself, the Omen series (apparently about to be remade), The Sentinel, and all those Amityville Horrors. The presence of the Prince of Darkness also for the first time established the priest as the appropriate adversary, essentially creating the sacramental or Roman Catholic horror film.
The latest in that fascinating subgenre, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, adds a new twist in its combination of theology with jurisprudence. Apparently based on an actual charge and trial, the movie sets its central action in a courtroom, where a priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson, who's worn the Roman collar before), accused of negligent homicide, must defend his failed exorcism of the young woman of the title, which the prosecutor (Campbell Scott) claims caused her death.
A bright, highly sensitive, 19-year-old college student, Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) manifests mysterious symptoms, including auditory and visual hallucinations, severe convulsions, and periodic catatonia, which a neurologist diagnoses as epileptic psychosis and treats with a powerful drug. Emily believes she actually suffers a demonic possession and Father Moore's archdiocese allows him to perform the ritual of exorcism.
The mystery of her condition and the uncertainties surrounding her death, which account for the charges against the priest, also allow the witnesses and the defendant to narrate their versions of the story in flashbacks in the customary manner of cinematic courtroom storytelling.
Perhaps because of its original source and the ambiguous circumstances, the picture omits the traditional devices of modern horror --- this exorcism avoids the levitation, the projectile vomiting, and the rotating head that made Linda Blair immortal. Its demons speak their devilish taunts in many tongues, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; the prosecutor maintains the victim, a college freshman, learned them in advanced catechism, perhaps the least credible item in the movie, since they don't even teach those languages in most seminaries these days. The quasi-documentary nature of the testimony and the narratives, and the low-key approach to the menace itself impart to the film a kind of sincerity lacking in most examples of its form.
Aside from the usual seesaw rhythm and the obvious editing tricks of the cinematic courtroom, with various witnesses contradicting each other and offering several versions of a single truth, and the familiar dialectic of prosecution and defense, unlike other trial movies, this one shows many moments of menace and fright. In the usual manner of the form, the priest's attorney, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), occupies a more important position than the defendant, undergoing something of a spiritual journey in the process of the trial.
An avowed agnostic, she suffers several moments of terror from the same sort of vague visitation that both Emily Rose and Father Moore experience, and discovers that even someone without faith must concede the possibility of the supernatural.
Like far too many movies, The Exorcism of Emily Rose never full exploits the possibilities of its subject and story, settling instead for a rather drab and undramatic resolution. Its source in actual events, again, may account for its downplaying of any potentially spectacular material, but the writers and the director may also consciously strive for a resolutely unsensational approach in order to emphasize the picture's authenticity.
In keeping with the action, the lighting, and the tone of the movie, just about all the performers in the cast demonstrate a uniformly low-key approach to their roles. Both Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney underplay even the most potentially dramatic moments of their characters' experience, maintaining a resolutely ordinary style while delivering some quite unusual lines or confronting some frightening and extraordinary event.
If it sometimes appears to dilute the emotional possibilities of some of the film's important moments, the competent consistency of their approach conforms perfectly with its manner and matter.
Finally, whatever its deficiencies, The Exorcism of Emily Rose provides another useful example of the possibilities of its form and an appropriate addition to the sacramental horror film.
As I have pointed out in the past, when the devil comes to visit, most people, whatever their faith or lack of it, don't choose to discuss liberal theology with him or flash a picture of Ralph Nader; they want the priest, the vestments, the holy water, the crucifix, the Latin, the Sacred Host, bell, book, and candle.
Science and reason, as the movie suggests, offer little protection against the dark power of a pure and irrational evil.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (PG-13), directed by Scott Derrickson, is playing at Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge 16, Eastview Mall 13, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Tinseltown, Vintage Drive-In, Webster 12