Serious, thoughtful horror films all but went extinct in the late ’70s, sometime between the commercial success of Halloween and the relative box-office disappointment of The Shining. Since then, there’ve been occasional exceptions to the rule — usually indie or Japanese flicks — but most of the successful, big-budget efforts are loaded up with cheap humor (the Scream series), envelope-pushing gore (House of Wax) or sickly sentimentalism (anything by M. Night Shyamalan).
Not so with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. For the first 20 minutes, you might think you’ve wandered into a theater showing old episodes of The Practice. Taking the "based on a true story" approach to heart, writer-director Scott Derrickson has done the oddest of things: He’s made a horror flick that’s set half in a pressure-cooker courtroom, and half in the head-flailing, bile-spewing world of a possessed teenage girl. It’s Erin Brockovich crossed with The Exorcist, or, if you’re feeling less charitable, Matlock meets The Omen.
The film focuses on the headline-making trial of a priest (Tom Wilkinson) accused of indirectly causing the death of Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), a devout college student who began to exhibit some very strange behavior after she left the nest for higher education. After a few months of classes, the formerly meek, wan Emily was thrashing her body around like a contortionist, starving herself and speaking in foreign tongues — not necessarily unlike the nubile college freshmen you might see in a Girls Gone Wild video. Was Emily epileptic and psychotic, as the prosecuting attorney (Campbell Scott) claims, or was she in need of a good old-fashioned exorcism?
Much like Emily herself, the movie veers from muted, restrained scenes of courtroom drama to horror scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in one of the Urban Legends films. Despite some hiccups, both halves work surprisingly well. The script contains more than its share of flat, obvious lines of dialogue, but with a cast like this, it hardly seems to matter. Laura Linney plays the driven, agnostic defense lawyer; both she and Scott are fascinating to watch as they argue in front of a jury, using the subtlest of glances and gestures to convey their antagonism. Wilkinson adds yet another inscrutable performance to his already long list of menacing-nice-guy supporting roles. As the fire-and-brimstone Emily, newcomer Carpenter admirably throws herself around like a human rag doll. She isn’t given much to say, but she gives Linda Blair a run for her money.
It may not have the seizure-inducing pace of most of today’s horror movies, but Derrickson’s film, for all its faults, proves that the slow and steady approach is the surest way to leave an audience truly freaked out.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].