Like The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is based on a true story ' a young German woman who died of starvation in 1976 after enduring 67 attempts by the Catholic Church to rid her of demons. Also like The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose takes the true story it's based on and runs with it, imagining horrors that the Devil, in his infinite capacity for evil, never got around to. So why is The Exorcist scary as hell and The Exorcism of Emily Rose boring as hell? Well, timing, for one thing. When The Exorcist came out in 1973, nobody had seen a 12-year-old girl puke on a priest before.
I caught The Exorcist during its rerelease a couple of years ago and was surprised at how poorly it held up. Were these the same scenes that left people sleeping with crosses under their pillows for months afterwards? The thing is, The Exorcist got there first, found a way to translate demonic possession into secular terms, went all medieval on us at a time when a famous magazine cover posed the immortal question, Is God Dead? And the movie did it by keeping one foot on the ground, giving the Devil his due while acknowledging the fact that nobody really believed in this stuff anymore.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which stars Laura Linney (radiating intelligence, as always) as a high-powered lawyer who doesn't believe in a higher power, tries to do the same thing. It's so beholden to The Exorcist that you keep waiting for those damn tubular bells to start their infernal ringing. The problem is that the movie isn't very scary. It never launches itself into the dark recesses of our psyches. Bucking for a promotion, Linney's Erin Bruner takes on a case that could make or break her career ' defending a priest (Tom Wilkinson) accused of negligent homicide as a result of an exorcism that didn't work out the way he'd planned.
The woman in question (Jennifer Carpenter, contorting nicely) does believe in a higher power, but that's not enough to ward off symptoms already familiar to us, minus the projectile vomit. We get her story via flashbacks during the trial, which is like taking hellish bathroom breaks during an episode of "Law and Order." And it's in the courtroom where the movie tries the hardest to keep it real, finally succumbing to diabolical silliness. Sensing that the jury's swaying toward the prosecutor (a no-nonsense Christian played by Campbell Scott), Erin cooks up a novel defense: The Devil made me do it.
By this point, Erin herself has been receiving late-night visits from the Prince of Darkness ' lights going on and off, etc. Heretofore, she's been an agnostic, more Scully than Mulder, and it's a little surprising how quickly she becomes a true believer. But that's what a bedeviled scriptwriter will do to you. Directed by Scott Derrickson, who cut his teeth on Hellraiser V, The Exorcism of Emily Rose might have offered us a penetrating look at faith and doubt and the respective roles they play in a court of law. Instead, it goes all soft in the head, giving the Devil not just his due but top billing.