In 1976 a young German woman, Anneliese Michel, died at the age of 23. Depending on which side of the religious fence you sit on this was either attributed to the demonic forces residing inside her or through extensive malnutrition. Anneliese was diagnosed as epileptic and was prescribed medication to help, however once her fits continued she became prone to sever bouts of depression. Both Anneliese and her family were devout Catholics and in time Anneliese herself thought her condition was not a physical one, but spiritual; she became convinced that she was possessed by demons.
To these ends she requested the help of her local priest and demanded an exorcism, this was initially refused but in time was granted by the church. At the end of this exorcism though Anneliese lay dead, the Catholic church reversed its original position, declaring Anneliese subject of a mental illness and the two priests who carried out the exorcism, and Anneliese parents, were arrested and tried for negligent homicide. All of this is true fact, and since her unfortunate death in 1976 there have been two films based on her all too short life. The Exorcism of Emily Rose relocates the story from Germany to mid west America and renames Anneliese Emily Rose. This film predominantly covers the period after her death, the court case of the priest involved in the ritual exorcism.
The film starts at the very end of the exorcism, a local coroner has come to examine Emily Rose's body, to determine the cause of death. Unable to satisfactorily confirm she died of natural causes Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is taken into custody. In time he is charged with negligent homicide and Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) is charged as being his defendant, tasked with convincing a jury that demonic forces do indeed exist and it was Anneliese's own decision to let them abuse her body and not the actions of Father Moore which caused her untimely demise.
The story moves into the court room where lead prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott) brings out witness after witness testifying to the fact that Emily Rose was indeed epileptic and psychotic and these illnesses required treatment with drugs and counselling which Father Moore ultimately denied her. For the defense Laura brings forth expert witnesses indicating that a person convinced they are possessed will only gain their 'freedom' by a ritual exorcism. Father Moore eventually takes the stand to give his own version of events and in flashback we see the slow but steady demise of Emily Rose.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose does not try to be an out and out horror film; unlike The Exorcist where the ritual is shown on screen in all of its horrific glory The Exorcism of Emily Rose only shows brief glimpses of this religious rite. The film shows other flashbacks; Emily Rose going to college and whilst there suffering her epileptic seisures, seeing shadows in the dark, and slowly deteriorating into a shell of her former lively self. The issue of if she is actually possessed or not is rather ambiguous, and rightly so. In a work of fiction such as The Exorcist then the playing field is wide open, yes the writers can take whatever avenues they like and convince an audience that demonic possession actually exists. This story is based on real events however and more care needed to be taken with it; I feel it is to the writers' and director's credit that this period in Emily Rose's life is left for the individual viewer to determine from their own experiences if in fact Emily was possessed by demons or if these demons were just figments of her own strong imagination because of her diagnosed ailment and her devout religious upbringing. There is obvious artistic license here at work though as well and the moments we see from Emily Roses perspective are chilling to say the least; her gruesome fits, her inability to reach out for religious artefacts in Chapel, the painful genuflections in her own bedroom (in reality shattering her kneecaps).
Neither though does The Exorcism of Emily Rose try to be a dedicated court room drama. By all means this is the main trust of the film and not the exorcism of the title but as so much is shown in flashback then this film has to be regarded as an amalgamation of the two genres. During the court room scenes though you can expect the usual from this style of film; examination and cross examination. This genre has produced some worthy films from To Kill a Mockingbird through to the excellent back court room drama of 12 Angry Men but this film does not scale those heady heights, it perhaps falls back to something akin to A Time to Kill where the evidence is offered up for the viewer to make up their own mind but some of the more interesting aspects of the case are in fact left out. In reality as Anneliese's parents were also on trial then perhaps this should have been included in this dramatisation, it would have added a little further depth to the court case as a whole. In the end what we are left with are expert testimony from either side and the judgement on if Father Moore was guilty or not really will rest on your religious stance and that would be dictated from the get go. If you believe in demonic possession then no matter the evidence offered up here you will find him innocent, if you're more of a scientific mind then you will no doubt find him guilty; there's just not enough swaying evidence from either side to move these two entrenched camps.
In saying that though, no matter my own personal opinions on the Anneliese Michele case, I enjoyed the film for what it was. Admittedly at times I found it difficult to view with a dispassionate eye because of that time in 1976 but once over this hurdle and trying to relate to The Exorcism of Emily Rose as a piece of fiction rather than something with an historical link I found the scenes of Emily Rose as she deteriorates into her own self induced madness quite disturbing. From the horror point of view it was somewhat refreshing to see the mind play tricks again on itself rather than the same old blood and guts we have experienced all too often with the current lust for hack and slash. I think it's fair to say that this would have made a much better fictional dramatisation that what we eventually ended up with, but then comparisons would have been drawn to The Exorcist so I suppose that the writers were really on a hiding to nothing in that regard.
The pace of the film sits well, with enough transposition between the courtroom and flashbacks filling in the gaps for the viewer to make up their own judgements. The slow nature of the court a perfect foil for the faster pace of the events leading up to Father Moore's incarceration. Acting is suitably impressive, especially from Tom Wilkinson as Father Moore showing tenacity at the trial he has to endure, the obvious emotion as he discusses the dead Emily Rose and the fear he shows when confronting the six demons residing in her body. Campbell Scott playing the dispassionate prosecutor is perfect for the role, emotionless yet still finding it within himself to fight for the departed memory of Emily Rose. His calm delivery and court appearances outshine those produced by Laura Linney as defense counsel.
I can recommend The Exorcism of Emily Rose if and only if you don't actually relate it to the original Anneliese Michel story. As a piece of horror/drama it does its job well enough; providing the chills and the shocks when needed and providing the somewhat less enjoyable courtroom scenes for the viewer to engage and become a participant on the jury. If however you know anything about the origins then you'll find it somewhat lacking perhaps, but then again this may depend on your own beliefs. Ultimately then enjoyment from this film will be judged by personal beliefs and to a degree that's no bad thing. For myself I managed to put aside those beliefs and enjoy this from an entertainment aspect.
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