Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: Paul Harris Boardman & Scott Derrickson
Produced by: Clint Culpepper
Starring: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, and Jennifer Carpenter

While waiting in a surprisingly long line at the box office, I heard something again and again: teenagers asking for tickets to “The Exorcist.” Of course, the red-vested gentleman behind the glass knew what they really wanted to see. They were there for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Then, when I walked into the theater and took my seat, I surveyed this young crowd again and wondered if any of them had even seen the 1973 film—my favorite horror film of all time. I also wondered if the patrons who had seen the classic would be able to give Emily Rose a fair trial.

The movie is loosely based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German teenager who died after a failed exorcism. In real life, the girl’s parents were charged for their involvement in her death. In this fictionalized account, the girl is Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), and it is the Roman Catholic priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who is arrested. According to the state’s top prosecutor, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), Emily had a rare condition called Epileptic Psychosis which caused her eyes to turn black and her body to contort into horrid, twisted shapes. The disorder also made her see things that weren’t there—things she claimed were demons. Thomas contends that Moore urged her to stop taking medication for this illness, thereby causing her death.

Moore, on the other hand, believes that Emily was not sick at all. It is his contention that she was possessed by six demons, and that it was this demonic attack on her body that ultimately killed her.

Enter hot shot defense lawyer Erin Bruner (the always amazing Laura Linney). She takes the case to earn a full partnership in her lawfirm. She doesn’t believe in demons. She doesn’t believe in much of anything. But all of that is about to change.

Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson has stated that he wanted to make the first ever courtroom horror film, and that’s where much of the action takes place: the courtroom. He presents us with evidence on both sides of the issue. In addition to nicely orchestrated scenes of possession (Some of which call to mind The Entity), we are given alternate flashbacks to show that Emily might have hallucinated her otherworldly attackers. Jennifer Carpenter gives a star-making turn as Emily. We truly feel her pain, her fear, and her confusion as the possession takes hold. This is extremely important, because Boardman & Derrickson’s script gives us so little information about Emily Rose to begin with. In fact, it is the quality of the acting across-the-board that makes this movie so engrossing. With a simple, wordless glance, Linney can convey everything her character is thinking and feeling—creating depth on screen where none exists on paper. And Campbell Scott turns in his best performance to date. His Thomas has the conviction and moral certainty Linney’s Bruner sorely lacks.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge this film against The Exorcist, but the comparison is unavoidable. The structure of that film was quite different—slowly building to a climactic confrontation between good and evil. When Emily Rose opens, the failed exorcism of the title is already over. Those frightening images of demons you’ve seen in the commercials and trailers? Well…that’s all of them. And the possession itself is a far cry from Linda Blair’s. This is a “realistic” portrayal of demonic control. Emily’s body does contort, but it doesn’t bend beyond its physical limitations. Those who flock to this film to see heads spinning and projectile vomit will leave quite disappointed.

Despite its flaws, it’s hard for me to pass harsh judgment on The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a film that asks questions on the very nature of belief—questions for which there are no easy answers. Is the movie frightening? A teenaged girl sitting next to me, one of those who asked for a ticket to The Exorcist two hours before, left the theater visibly shaken. How it will affect you depends entirely on your own beliefs.

3 out of 5 stars