In which I watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I Buy It?
The Exorcist (1973) is a very effective movie. When it ends, you don’t turn to your friend and laugh about how good it got you that one time. Instead, you walk out feeling convinced pure evil is real, eternal damnation is a fact, and your chance of salvation is almost nonexistent. Naturally, one night I was in the mood for more of this feeling. So I googled “Are there other exorcism movies” and this came up as basically the only result. It was March 2008.
Why’d I Never Watch It?
Most horror movies are 81 minutes long. This one exceeds two hours, like it wants you to settle in for Lawrence of Horrorabia. Also, most horror movies don’t hire an Oscar nominee/winner to class things up/drag them down. This movie advertises two: Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson.
Now that Sergeant Tibbs has ensconced me in a mysterious old mansion, I know what I’ve been missing.
As we open, saintly college student Emily Rose is dead. She has died during an exorcism, and the priest is to be tried for killing her through negligence. Buzzkill doctors are saying she wasn’t possessed, she was mentally ill, and she shouldn’t have gone off her meds like she did in the priest’s care. So what we are getting here is a courtroom drama about demonic possession, or, as regular commenter fatima put it when this movie was assigned, the Halloween episode of Matlock.
But that is actually promising! A courtroom drama plays by one strict rule; namely, it has to be intelligent. Everything has to seem to regular people like something that people who went to law school would do. This particular movie sets an even higher bar for itself by dragging in theology, and to that end, every Emily scene is open to both a supernatural AND medical explanation. The lawyers end up all but engaging in Socratic dialog over the very existence of God. So! We are faced with the most intelligent, most arcane, highest-stakes movie of all time! How will it help us cope with its lofty ambitions??
Mainly by being dumb. Quick, right now, make a list of every cliché you ever saw in a courtroom drama. Okay, everything on your list is in here. Do we feel political pressure to win the case, or to throw it? Yes. Does the guy who’s on trial take the stand because only he can truly defend himself? Twice! Does it turn out he lied about something and now we don’t know who to trust? Sure. But then, two minutes later, does it turn out he lied with the purest of motives, so now we trust him even more? Does the self-assured hero lawyer come to doubt her abilities? Does new evidence come to light late in the game? (“Very well. I’ll allow it.”) Does the judge call a sidebar because you two have really gone out on a limb today? Yeah, all of it, and of course there are impassioned shouts of “Redirect, your honor!” and “Objection!” (Also this gem: “On what grounds?” / “How about silliness?”) “Can you identify this?” You can. Somehow it’s all played with zero eye-rolling.
Let’s not forget, though, it’s also a horror movie. Maybe it’s larded with this stupidity because it’s spending all its energy on terror, frights, things of that nature? Uh, well, early on, a door bangs open, and you and me and Emily have to go investigate all alone at 3 AM. It’s not cool. Then as the demons OR mental illness takes hold of Emily, we’re caught in a brief portrayal of the loss of God’s veil of protection OR sanity. It’s a grueling enough segment, despite leaning on lotsa terrible CGI (oh no, there’s a devil face in the clouds!).
Overall, though, this movie is stuffed with polite, classy scares. Things like waking up in the middle of the night for no reason. A nearby pigeon taking off as if it saw something. A second banging door. AND: a third banging door.
Oh yeah, on the priest score: In real life, when the Catholic Church decides an exorcism needs doing, they have specialists. Actual exorcists to send in. It is not handled the way this movie shows it, which is Parish Priest Tom Wilkinson tells the bishop one of his parishioners is possessed and the bishop says, “Okay, give it a shot.” That is like if the plane from Con Air emergency-landed in Mayberry and every super-criminal aboard broke free, so the governor of the state told Sheriff Taylor, “Gosh, Andy, see if you can round em up.”
There is literally a scene where Father Wilkinson falls asleep while reading up on how to do exorcisms the night before. All-nighter before the big test? Sure, why not.
Eh, maybe he can handle it. We’ve got the door-banging epilepsy demons here, not the head-swiveling pea soup ones. These demons only go up to 3 (on the 1-11 scale). Do they make Emily shout Latin in a deep voice? Do they make her eat a bug? Heck yes. But they DON’T make Emily stab herself furiously in the vagina with a crucifix (that happens in The Exorcist!) and they don’t make lightning strike a pole that then falls off a church and impales a priest (that happens in The Omen; give me a break, The Omen), or something worse, like whatever is worse than those two things. I have no idea what is worse than those things and neither does this movie, which is a big problem because Satan probably does.
We must conclude the movie decided to play the milquetoast cumulative chills card because it felt the Big Fucking Terror card would distract from its overall goal. Which is to make you think. Specifically, this movie supposes you are a calm, reasonable member of the jury, and it wants to lawyer you into reasonable doubt so that you won’t be so confident “the spiritual realm” is not real. That is more ambitious than most movies! And it pretty much forgoes vomit and blood to stake everything on the legal road to success. It all builds to Laura Linney’s closing argument, which is a straight-up “You have to have reasonable doubt. The medical experts didn’t prove it wasn’t demons.” That sounds more convincing coming from Laura Linney, too, than it would coming from someone much more likely to have been in this movie, like, say, Ali Larter.
I know, I know: Hold the phone, you’re saying. This movie FAILS in its goal of making me believe, because if demons are real, the very existence of this movie disproves them! Surely demons, when they learned this movie was about to get made, would have freaked out (if real). They would have reasoned that it was bad enough when members of the real-life jury got to hear the argument in favor of reasonable doubt/faith. (Oh yeah: This movie is based on a true story.) Now if a movie gets made (the demons would have thought) then millions will hear that argument, and many souls will be saved! Souls currently on track for a real hot afterlife! WE HAVE TO STOP THIS MOVIE. So they would have killed the director to halt it. And not just killed him, but really spectacularly killed him, so no other directors would agree to take the job, and the studio would have buried the production. Right? And that didn’t happen. The movie got made. Ergo the spiritual realm is baloney. BUT I WOULD ARGUE THAT IS WHAT THE DEMONS WANT YOU TO THINK. Because chances are they gamed it out, and realized what would happen if they did kill the director:
Gavel Bang! Rank It!
A gavel bang on a movie featuring gavel bangs? This is the most meta review ever. I’m comfortable with that, and I hereby move Emily Rose to the Ranked DVDs List at spot number 311. That’s high considering its disappointments, but also low considering its successes. They cancel each other out! So it places after The Man With the Golden Arm, which depicts heroin addiction the way you’d expect in a 1955 movie (i.e., turned up to about 3), and above Angels & Demons (which is also about priests, but is moronic). I award this movie six feral cats, which it must care for even as they ruin crucial moments.