Barbed wire. The medical examiner, clad in dark clothing, approaches the house, carpenter gothic beneath gray skies. We see dry cornstalks and unharvested crops. Cats have run of the yard. A damaged barn door remains unrepaired. It's cold outside. Snow falls, and yet a wasps' nest buzzes with activity.

He knocks on the door. He's come to assess cause of death.

Emily Rose's first year at university was cut short by convulsions and nightmarish phenomena. People turned to devils as she passed. Voices haunted her, ones no one else could hear. Finally, she began to exhibit the classic signs (as horror movies have presented them) of demonic possession. When psychiatric treatment failed, her family turned to a priest, who made several unsuccessful attempts to exorcise the demons that he believed resided within Emily. The girl refused to eat, and eventually she died. Many believe that proper medical treatment would have saved her, and so her priest faces criminal charges.

The diocese, which approved the exorcism, hires a lawyer, played by Laura Linney. She faces her own challenges. An agnostic, she questions whether the forces of heaven or hell even exist. Her firm makes promises and threats based on the outcome of the high-profile case. Her client insists on testifying—- but the church does not want him to speak. She has personal doubts about her actions, because a man she helped free has recently committed another crime. Finally, she starts to experience odd occurrences. It seems those demons whose existence she doubts may be stalking her.

The film tells the story largely through flashbacks, as the characters prepare for and experience the trial of Father Moore. This permits doubt in many cases over the reality of the scenes; we’re seeing what various characters claim happened. The film in this manner initially presents a balanced view, with the Defense arguing that Rose may have been possessed and the Prosecution insisting that she suffered from mental disorder. We're left to interpret the early testimony according to our own biases. However, Ethan Thomas, the District Attorney, has been scripted and played as a fairly intolerant and at times irritating individual, leading us to side with Linney’s Erin Bruner. As the film progresses, people other than Emily Rose experience events which lack rational explanation. Multiple witnesses observe strange phenomena in the barn, which undercut earlier attempts to explain the possession in medical terms. People connected with Rose's case begin to experience weird and unsettling events. In the world of the film, it seems, the demons really do exist.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose claims to be Based on a True Story. That phrase figured in the advertising and appears even more prominently at the start of the film. The conclusion features a series of statements explaining what happened to the characters later, which furthers the notion that these events really occurred. The claim, however, had me second-guessing the film, wondering which scenes reflected reality and which were Hollywood fabrications. In short, it engaged my rational mind in a way which removed me from the film’s world. At that point, the film ceased to be all that frightening.

In reality, Emily Rose deviates significantly from the story that inspired it.1 The filmmakers either should have made a more accurate adaptation2 (or at least one that really balanced the possible interpretations of Emily’s experience) or simply made a horror movie (minimizing the pretense that the film represents a true account). Instead, Emily Rose pushes the "true supernatural story" angle, even suggesting that the titular character’s experiences amount to a convincing case for the existence of a God. The fatal suffering of one young woman, however, proves very little. I would expect a Satan to concoct something more diabolical than robbing one devout person’s mind, and a Supreme Being to put forward more compelling proof than anything we see in this film.

Emily Rose’s mix of genres has not always been handled effectively. At times, we see a passably frightening horror movie; more often, we’re watching a fairly pedestrian courtroom drama, a sort of Law & Order: Supernatural Victims Unit. The Exorcism of Emily Rose makes for an occasionally interesting film with some well-constructed frightening scenes. Jennifer Carpenter gives an effective performance as the possessed young woman. The film fails to succeed as a full-blown supernatural thriller, however, and its courtroom drama seems too one-sided and, frankly (given the material) ordinary.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman

Laura Linney as Erin Bruner
Jennifer Carpenter as Emily Rose
Scott Campbell as Ethan Thomas
Tom Wilkinson as Father Moore
Colm Feore as Karl Gunderson
Joshua Close as Jason
Kenneth Walsh as Dr. Mueller
Duncan Fraser as Dr. Cartwright

1. The abridged version: whereas the film depicts a young American "Emily Rose" experiencing months of torment before dying, Anneliese Michel lived in rural Germany and underwent years of bizarre behavior and various treatments from 1968 until her death in 1976. None of the phenomena crossed the bounds of the physically possible, as seems to occur in the film. In real life, the attending physician did not die under sinister circumstances.

After her death, two priests and both of Michel’s parents stood trial. In the film, a single priest faces charges.

We see recreations of the kind of things that Anneliese experienced, though the film ignores, arguably, some of her most disturbing behavior. We do not observe the rupture to the ligaments of her knees which resulted from hundreds of genuflections she performed during the exorcism rituals—actions her parents facilitated when she grew too weak to perform them herself. We see evidence of the family's religious beliefs, but not their extremes. The real-life Anneliese Michel’s mother became pregnant out of wedlock at a time and place where she faced significant social sanctions. The child later died, and Anneliese and her sisters were encouraged to atone for the sins of illegitimacy. The teenaged Anneliese sometimes slept on stone floors to atone for the sins of others, and she would later express the belief that her suffering and eventual death might help save priests and youth who had strayed from the Catholic faith. These extremes of devotion would, at the very least, encourage Michel to see unusual experiences in religious and demonic terms.

2. A German film, Requiem, follows more closely the actual events.

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