The Successorcism of Emily Rose

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You know, I was all set to write an post tonight called the SUXorcism of Emily Rose. But then I saw the movie. It’s not really a good movie, mind you – more of a mixed bag – but the good parts of the movie are too good to write off entirely.

And the box office results reflect it. Not surprising me at all, it seems The Exorcism of Emily Rose was the weekend’s box-office winner, clocking over $30 million in its initial weekend of release. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that fall off as soon as next weekend as word of mouth gets around that the movie, fundamentally, isn’t that good. Of course, if you’ve got $8-$10 that’s burning a hole in your pocket, are a horror die-hard, or just like this kind of thing, it’s worth a watch.

The good?

Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Emily, ought to receive some sort of Oscar nomination, if there’s any justice in the world. She gives an amazing physical performance and the movie would have fallen completely flat without her abilities. I can’t remember the last time I saw a non-CGI-aided (this movie was low on CGI, thankfully) performance in which an actor or actress put their body to uses this powerful (well, maybe here). The contortions, the facial expressions, the physical discipline, the vocal effects that Carpenter achieves are astounding and truly the most frightening things about the film. Her sense of physical motion, of poise carries and creates the horror here. They recalled for me one of the signal frightening horrors in my entertainment life – sister Zelda in the film version of Pet Sematary.

The scenes in which Emily struggles with possession or is possessed are intense, riveting, high-impact and scary.

The sound design is great. Nearly on par with the film I consider to have the greatest horror sound design ever, Session 9.

All’s not entirely well. Because the bad? There’s a lot.

First of all, the director is telling entirely the wrong story. As you may know, the movie is the story of a trial that takes places after the failed exorcism. The whole movie is posited as a courtroom drama, furnished with devil flashbacks. Well, what could be a more wrong idea? The dialogue is too weak, too mild, too direct to make the courtroom scenes interesting on that level and the director (also the co-writer) knows it. Watch the way he can’t stop moving the camera throughout every courtroom scene. He knows these scenes are wooden and is trying to keep us from settling on that by keeping the camera from settling on anything.

Hands down, no question, the movie’s best moments are the possession and exorcism scenes. So why not make the movie about Emily Rose’s experience of becoming possessed and dealing with it? Not only would that be terrifying (based on what Carpenter displays in those scenes), but in the hands of a director more skilled at building character and tone, the film could have been a real artistic achievement (as it is, it’s lit garishly, among other problems. But the nugget of a really great horror movie is in there).

Even worse, the title character is hardly a player in the film at all. She has amazingly few lines prior to the possession and once that starts, it’s not her talking anymore. Given that the movie’s about her, you’d think she’d be more of a presence. Her presence would have allowed me to connect to the character in more than the generic female-lead-in-trouble way. Giving her the stage that the title implies could have made the movie sad as well as scary, but like the camera in the courtroom scenes, the director can’t stay on any single thing long enough to build a real character.

The normally good Laura Linney comes off as dippy and looking like a distaff Jennifer Aniston here. The also normally good Tom Wilkinson just has nothing to work with here. Campbell Scott’s humorless Protestant lawyer (and boy, Protestantism takes a beating here) made me want to go watch The Spanish Prisoner so I could forget all about him in this movie.

So, no, not a good movie. But one with some really redeeming points and possession and exorcism scenes that – dare I say this? – I found a lot scarier and more powerful than anything in the ur-text of this subgenre, The Exorcist.

I think we should keep an eye out for Jennifer Carpenter. There’s something there. I hope her next movie gives her more of a chance to vocalize what that something is.

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