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The Exorcism of Emily Rose

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg-13
119 min. Screen Gems. Director: Scott Derrickson. Cast: Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Jennifer Carpenter, Colm Feore.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is an exploitation picture given the "A" treatment by writer-director Scott Derrickson. Billed as "based on a true story," Derrickson's film transports the tragic tale of Anneliese Michel from 1976 smalltown Germany to 2005 smalltown America, renaming the girl Emily Rose in the process.

The broad strokes of the real-life case remain. A girl begins exhibiting strange symptoms that she and her family interpret as demonic possession. Puzzled doctors diagnose epilepsy as the best possible explanation, but a local priest becomes convinced that an exorcism is in order. The exorcism results in the girl's death and a sensational trial of the priest. As in Inherit the Wind, it's a case of faith versus science.

Because of a willingness to weigh evidence, The Exorcism of Emily Rose can be scarily disorienting until Derrickson finally tells us what to think. In the supposed honor of Anneliese Michel, Derrickson tips the scales to belief in the supernatural, which is good for ticket sales, but bad for the film's otherwise provocative agnosticism. Dig a little and you'll not only find sketches of the real incidents but the revelation that Derrickson is a devout Evangelical Christian.

Derrickson mostly plays fair, getting his scares by presenting subjective flashbacks. We see, for instance, what Emily (Jennifer Carpenter, in a grueling physical performance) reports seeing, like faces melting hideously into shadow. As the plot demands, however, Derrickson plays fast and loose with the flashbacks, shifting without warning from one character's perspective to another. Derrickson invents door-flapping scares—always at the demonic witching hour of 3 am—for Linney's lawyer, and at his worst, Derrickson lazily dispenses with a character by way of a wholly unexplained plot-twist scare. Even with these conceits, Derrickson's post-milennial horror movie qualifies as restrained.

With a deep-bench cast that includes Laura Linney and Campbell Scott as opposing counsel, Tom Wilkinson as Father Moore, and Shohreh Aghdashloo and Henry Czerny as expert witnesses, Derrickson delivers unsettlingly credible scares by minimizing hype and indulging the debate, to a point. Emily's violent bodily shudders could be epilepsy, though EEGs would seem to disagree. Flurries of Ancient Greek, Latin, German, and Aramaic could all be explained by Emily's course of study.

The script harbors plenty of melodramatic admonishment ("The forces of darkness are trying to keep you away from the light," Wilkinson tells Linney's Erin. "Don't let them"), but sincerely raises questions of belief. Scott's character is devoutly religious, while Linney's is agnostic. Underestimating the audience, Derrickson adds a plot thread about Erin's amoral ambition (she wants to be senior partner), which wilts along with her skepticism. Erin quickly agrees with Father Moore's mantra: Emily's story must be told, at all costs.

Moore claims that a drug called Gambutrol weakened Emily and hastened her death; Czerny's witness argues that continued drug treatment could have saved her. Without batting an eyelash, Aghdashloo's expert explains Emily's supposed hypersensitivity by name-dropping discredited astral traveller Carlos Castaneda and his "separate reality." (Dr. Felicitas D. Goodman, who wrote the now-out-of-print The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel and died earlier this year, is credited as a consultant on the film.)

Putting aside the nagging liberties taken with Anneliese Michel's experiences (the film hardly does the real girl justice, despite a somber epitaph pledging to do so), The Exorcism of Emily Rose makes a good scary movie, the cinematic equivalent of a juicy urban myth. Audiences can choose to see the vertiginous camera moves, hear the archetypical creepy music ("ah"s and fluttering strings), and thrill to the intense exorcism scene; they can also succumb to Derrickson's emotional sway. But that the audience emerges to consider the potential reality of supernature testifies most loudly to the talent behind the film.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 7/22/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

One of a trio of new horror Blu-Rays from Sony, The Exorcism of Emily Rose comes in its unrated version, adding three minutes to the theatrical cut. Just as on DVD, the Blu-Ray sports almost an hour of featurettes, a deleted scene, and a commentary by co-writer/director Scott Derrickson. Of most import to those who already own the DVD is the audio-visual transfer, which is a typically exemplary effort from Sony. As Derrickson himself notes on the commentary, the transfer actually represents his original vision more so than the theatrical prints, which had troublesome color timing. Indeed, the image is rich in color, strong in black level and nicely detailed, retaining the film's vintage feel by not oversharpening the image. The TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack expertly balances the subtleties of the film's scary soundscape.

Derrickson's solo commentary gives a thorough overview of his experience initiating, developing, shooting, and finishing the film. An engaging host, Derrickson also discusses its critical reception, the film's elaborate color symbology (and palette based on Francis Bacon), and his extensive study of courtroom movies, among other topics. The Deleted Scene (2:41) also offers optional director's commentary, an amusing rundown of many reasons why he was dissatisfied with the scene, an aborted one-night stand for Laura Linney's character.

"Genesis of the Story" (19:48) deals with the titular topic and more, particularly the nature of the film's ambiguous subject matter. Participants include Derrickson, co-writer/producer Paul Harris Boardman, Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott. All but Scott speak up again on "Casting the Movie" (12:23), all about the actors, how they came to the project, and what they brought to it. "Visual Design" (18:58) goes into detail on the color palette, photography, sets, and locations. Fresh voices include production designer David Brisbin, costume designer Tish Monaghan, visual effects supervisor Michael Shelton, and animatronics designer Terry Sandin. Sony includes previews for 21 and Starship Troopers: Marauder, and of course this Sony disc is BD-Live enabled, with special content available on the web.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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