Not long after her possession and subsequent death people speculated: what if Anneliese Michel, the victim of possession featured in 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, saw The Exorcist and simply mimicked possession, or coupled it with her existing troubles? After all, the film had swept Germany into a frenzy as it had America, creating a wave of hysteria. Could the deeply devout Anneliese Michel have seen the film and incorporated possession to her mental illness? A simple sweep of chronology clears this charge: Anneliese began to experience the symptoms of possession in 1968—long before both the book and movie were released. But what of epilepsy, psychosis, and all of the other plausible explanations for what may have happened?
In its opening shot, The Exorcism of Emily Rose pays homage to its predecessor, showing an older gentleman approaching a home wearily with a hat and satchel in hand. This shot must be intentional, however, as that the character is actually the medical examiner and not the priest/exorcist (The Exorcist’s movie poster featured Father Merrin enshrouded in darkness).
Perhaps it is the light, or the film’s priest Father Richard Moore peeking down from the curtains that signals “we are trying to do something different here,” but the nod is impossible to miss. Before entering the home, the medical examiner witnesses a lively wasp’s nest and the camera pans to remind the viewer it is winter time. The dilapidated farmhouse is filled with the traumatized family of Emily Rose, and within the film’s first few minutes the stage is set. Father Richard Moore is taken into custody (in realistic, non-handcuff and tough talk style) and the viewer is shown the District Attorney and his ADAs discussing who the lead prosecutor should be. Rather than crying outrage, they are concerned about public opinion and wish to ensure victory by tasking a practicing Christian as the prosecutor.
Similarly, we are introduced to Bruner, Fr. Moore’s attorney. Her stakes are similarly set: if you successfully defend the priest (and in turn safeguard the Archdiocese the story is set in), she will earn a full partnership in the legal firm she is employed in. As Attorney Bruner accepts the case and goes to meet Fr. Moore for the first time, she openly admits her agnosticism (in a sense mirroring the audience by saying “I don’t hold or refute any possibility), a theme which the movie insists upon: in a sense, the film and its director have stated that the technique for shooting it consisted of neither assuming nor denying any possibility. The film’s director Scott Derrickson self-identifies as a believer and enlisted Paul Harris Boardman to co-write the film in order to ensure its neutrality (see the DVD commentary for more on this). When viewed without a “true story” lens, The Exorcism of Emily Rose asks the viewer to answer the same question the film does: do supernatural and religious phenomenon have precedence in the courtroom when a victim/defendant are ardent believers?
As a horror film Emily Rose has a few short moments, but these scenes are then reshot and counteracted without the supernatural elements in order to explain how the reverse could have been true; that to the untrained eye, the contortions, voices, and pupil dilations observed by family were not possession but rather manifestations of an increasing disorder. Stripped of this, these isolated scenes lose much of their punch and quickly shuffle this film into the “courtroom drama/thriller” genre (if such categorizations are necessary). As a horror fan I believe they are, mostly due to the desire to see stories presented without apology or following the old tired and trite method of “is it/isn’t it real,” a story mechanism that grew tired long ago.
The possession sequence depicted in the film is rather direct: when alone, Emily Rose (played by Jennifer Carpenter) awakens at the Witching Hour and smells burning. Upon examination of her dormitory, the doors on both opposing sides are banging shut. She secures them and returns to bed. After that her sheets are yanked free, the bed invisibly depresses downward, and a very talented Jennifer Carpenter begins to suffocate with the muscles of her neck pressed against her skin, like thick ropes drew taut. Throughout the film, she achieves a state of suspended paralysis in a great number of difficult positions. Perhaps most effective is her voice, which achieves a death metal/black metal worthy resonance that even Angela Gossow would be proud of.
In an effort to perhaps achieve categorization as a horror film, Attorney Bruner is informed by Fr. Moore that there are “dark forces surrounding this trial” and that she best arm herself against them. Several times Bruner awakens and hears and sees a few things, although nothing ultimately comes of this. The failure for something to appear or hinder her quickly loses interest in the viewer and leaves one wondering why the sequence was added to the film in the first place.
The sharpest removal the viewer is the voiceover narration that initiates and in some cases guides scenes. Although it is critical to differentiate who is telling their version, as the scenes told begin, the voice is a harsh intrusion which prevents deep immersion, thus pacifying the frightening sequences and further pushing the viewer toward “this didn’t happen” rather than its opposite. Bruner quickly loses faith in the courtroom and rather loudly expresses her frustration (when half the court is still present). Sequences like this beg for a common sense check and are denied. In an effort to keep the already lengthy film moving, oversights like this mimic a “real feel,” although fiction and films are supposed to highlight “the best moments,” the times where our rebuttals are witty and polished. Such breaches of expectation are refreshing, perhaps, but ultimately keep an uneven pace.
Perhaps the most original facet of this film is the counterposition of the priest and cultural anthropologist: the drugs may have killed Emily Rose because they prevented the exorcism from working. Viewed even as dramatic psychological treatment, this theory has a basis. If a patient believes themselves to be possessed and traditional medicine is unable to expel/pacify the patient, could not a psychological drama suited to the patients “delusions” then be a better cure? Following this extension, what if the drug prescribed by medicine anesthetized the portion of the brain that would be most actively receptive to absorbing the exorcism?