- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 8, 2005

“The Exorcist” casts such a long shadow over the demonic possession genre that most directors are scared to death to tackle it.

About the only time the subject surfaces is in spoofs — remember an indignant Father Richard Pryor on “Saturday Night Live?” — or in tepid sequels to the 1973 classic.

Along comes “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” and it posits two arguments for an exorcism revival.

For one, it’s based on a true story, although audiences can be sure it helps itself to plenty of artistic license. For another, it combines a possession-driven horror film with a courtroom drama, an approach that deflects copycat concerns.

And no one eats so much as a spoonful of pea soup.

Still, we can’t shake the feeling that neither half rises to the cinematic occasion. We’ve seen more compelling courtroom theatrics on the small screen. And every time the horror starts to simmer, the action flashes forward or back to a less supernatural set piece.

Laura Linney plays Erin Bruner, a lawyer basking in her successful defense in a tabloid murder case. Her firm taps her to defend a local priest (Tom Wilkinson, appropriately earthy and earnest) named Father Moore, accused of botching the exorcism of a sick college student.

Emily Rose’s death, the prosecution claims, stemmed from Father Moore denying her the epilepsy medication her doctors prescribed. The priest claims the medication interrupted her brain patterns and prevented him from casting out her inner demons.

A mustachioed Campbell Scott plays the prosecuting attorney, purportedly a man of faith, but one who gleefully bares his fangs whenever Erin sticks her neck out.

The film attempts a mini “Rashomon,” following both versions of the story to let audiences make up their own minds about whom to believe. But co-writer and director Scott Derrickson’s sympathies lie with Father Moore.

“Emily Rose” provides a showcase for Mr. Derrickson’s affinity for horror. He raises goose bumps when it appears the demons who invaded Emily might be gunning for Erin next. The young director orchestrates these moments with an impressively mature command of the instruments — lighting, pacing and soundtrack — in a horror director’s tool kit. This kind of textured art is the antithesis of the cheap-and-easy scares resorted to in such recent horror quickies as “Boogeyman,” “Darkness” and “They.” Yes, “Emily Rose’s” pins-and-needles score is beyond trite, but it still jangles our nerves.

The film’s screenplay contains an unfortunate number of giggle lines, and an integral supporting player gets snuffed out with all the subtlety of a Wile E. Coyote pratfall.

The film’s biggest flaw is not knowing what to do with Mr. Scott’s character. His first minutes in the courtroom crackle, yet he quickly reverts to stereotypical legal posturing.

The film never delves into Emily’s family, either. How strong is their faith in Father Moore? Do they harbor doubts?

When Mr. Derrickson decided to squeeze two genres into “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” he left himself no wiggle room for such complexities.

** 1/2

TITLE: “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

RATING: PG-13 (Graphic and frightening imagery, violence and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Mr. Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman.

RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.

com/movies/theexorcismofemilyrose/index.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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