TORONTO, September 8, 2005 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The rule that Truth is scarier than fiction, seems to have been largely lost on Hollywood along with most other guidelines for quality filmmaking. An implausible film cannot frighten. But The Exorcism of Emily Rose is different in that it followed the rule. It broke not once from the evidence of real demonic possession and the theological rules governing it.
Most people will compare Emily Rose with The Exorcist, the controversial 1973 film that was also based on recorded accounts of real exorcisms. But for anyone who likes a good supernatural thriller it might be a hint to know that the reasons the ludicrously bad 2003 film, “The Order” was an ignominious fiasco are the same that Emily Rose is a seriously good – and scary – film about the supernatural.
Director Scott Derrickson seems to understand the rule. In pre-release interviews, he said that even the homework scared him. “The research phase was horrible,” Derrickson, a Christian, said. “I am glad that I know so much about it. That’s good knowledge to have… But I will never do that again.”
Emily Rose largely eschews the usual trappings of a movie about the Catholic Church. There are no velvet vestments, gorgeous Gothic churches, baroque altars or depictions of magnificent liturgy so beloved of Hollywood filmmakers and traditional Catholics alike. The Catholicism depicted is the dull work-a-day variety, that of ordinary people caught up in something bigger than themselves that has become terrifying and incomprehensible.
It includes most of the necessary features of a good supernatural thriller. The bad guys and the priest speak to each other in Latin; the possessed girl contorts and screams, growling and chuckling in several ancient languages, clawing walls and suffering suitably terrifying visions.
In the grand tradition of Hitchcock, the chills rely more on suggestion, lighting, slowly opening doors, loud bangs, barely-heard whispers, half-glimpsed shadows and psychological tension than gaudy special effects. The lighting is suitably gloomy, grainy and monochromatic throughout, evoking police photos or even early American art.
The special effects are not there to admire, but focus on depicting the divergence between the normal and the perversion of normal that characterizes real supernatural evil. Even the direct horror of Emily’s possession was depicted not in spinning heads, flying pea soup or floating bodies, but in the weird just-that-side-of-natural manifestations that are reported to characterize real demonic evil. Plus a lot of screaming.
In fact, it might be said of Emily Rose that the most frightening thing about it is the lack of melodrama. Its realism uncomfortably reminds the audience that supernatural evil is as real, and therefore as likely, as the natural evil of a hurricane.
The film revolves around the testimony of the priest who is put on trial for negligent homicide when 19 year-old Emily dies after his attempt to exorcise her fails. The scary bits are given in flashback during courtroom testimony. The switches of scene from the comfortable, rational world of the courtroom to the wild, uncontrollable, irrational world of the supernatural might have been a distraction in the hands of a less competent director, or one not sure of his intentions. But Derrickson had something to say and everything in the film is carefully crafted to move the audience step by step, forward to a concrete conclusion. The very differences between the two worlds, that of the human, the normal, the safe, and the huge, uncontrollable world next door, are the pivot on which the film rests. The supernatural, it says, is not very far away and reality is not as safe as we may want to believe.
The message, which may have been overly bluntly delivered at the film’s conclusion, is simply that the existence of God is not contrary to reason, is not removed from the day-to-day realities in which we live. Emily, it is revealed, was possessed for a reason: to convey this message to the world.
The logic of the message is simple, if demonic forces are real and are what Christians have always held them to be, then God also has to be real and is also what Christians have always declared Him to be.
Derrickson gives the game away outright in pre-release interviews. Reality, he is saying, is not radically different from what we know with our empirical sciences, we have not made wrong conclusions using our human reason; we have simply not discovered everything there is to know. The real world encompasses both the material and the immaterial, both that which can be scientifically measured and that which can only be grasped with faith and there is no necessary conflict between them. It is not either/or.
“Right now, there is plenty of amorphous belief out there about God,” Derrickson said. “Lots of people are saying, ‘God is within us. God is a force. God is everything. God is everywhere.’ … They don’t really believe in a God who makes demands, who judges, does things that make us uncomfortable. They’re vague about evil, too.”
“What we tried to do was make an entertaining movie that scared people. But I also wanted people to stop and think about all of that.”