When I first saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose in the theater nine years ago, I couldn’t sleep for two nights afterwards. Even today, I still can’t watch it without losing sleep. Aside from The Exorcist, this is the one movie that still scares the piss out of me no matter what hour of the day I watch it. Based loosely on the real events of the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who died at age 23 after experiencing what she and her priests thought was demonic possession, Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose focuses mostly on the court proceedings after her death, making this a compelling courtroom drama as well as a horror film.
Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) is a lawyer who is defending a priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) who is being charged with negligent homicide after a young girl dies shortly after an exorcism. The movie follows the trial as Erin, who herself is an agnostic and doesn’t believe in demonic possession, tries to convince the jury that Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) did not die due to the priest’s neglect and advice to not seek professional medical help, but rather that Emily could not be helped and sought out assistance from the Church only after medicine and psychology had already failed her. Emily’s story is shown through flashbacks, as her health quickly deteriorates due to what is seemingly supernatural causes.
I was raised as a Catholic and to believe that God and the Devil exists, and even though I’m an adult now and make my own conclusions about what is or isn’t real, there’s no doubt that it’s this conditioning of beliefs that make this movie so unbelievably terrifying to me. It also doesn’t hurt that Jennifer Carpenter gives one of the scariest and tormented performances I’ve ever seen. Seriously, I couldn’t watch Dexter without half expecting she was going to start contorting her body and screaming loudly in a demon voice. She makes the green vomit-spewing Linda Blair seem almost cartoonish.
The thing I love about this movie is that it’s scary without trying to be too scary. There aren’t many cheap jump scares, and aside from a few cheesier visions of demons, the main scares are presented as a girl who is extremely ill mentally and physically. It also manages to be thought-provoking and frightening at the same time. Like I said, it’s a courtroom drama first and foremost, and the scariest parts involving the titular character, Emily, are presented to us from different people’s perspectives. The arguments on both sides are very convincing. Was what Emily was going through really demonic possession or the result of various psychiatric issues like schizophrenia, for example? It’s easy to write it off as the latter, but it’s impossible to do without undermining other people’s strong religious beliefs. Emily herself was convinced she was possessed and her family believed the same. The movie deals with issues like this, but at the same time, truly explores the possibility that what she thought she was experiencing was, in fact, the result of symptoms of a serious mental illness.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is my go-to movie if I feel like I don’t want to sleep for a while (which is a rare thing, I like sleep). I actually haven’t watched it in a few years and I don’t think I will any time soon. The fact that it is much more than just an exorcism movie makes it worth watching even for people who aren’t terrified of the idea of demonic possession. It may not be a horror classic like The Exorcist, but the interesting story, as well as the amazing performances by the actors–especially Jennifer Carpenter and Laura Linney–make this one of my favorite underrated horror movies to watch on a rare occasion.