Worst Horror Movie: The Exorcism of Emily Rose

If there is a cardinal sin the makers of a horror movie can commit it would certainly be making their film boring. When deciding on what film to declare my “least favorite” horror movie I debated on whether I could even include this film…as most of the film is a courtroom drama…with little bits of horror thrown in. After much consideration I decided this was the worst horror film to me…and not for the reasons many expect.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the movie I always return to when I think of the “worst” horror movie. No it’s not as atrocious as many of the cheesy horror fare, it has very strong performances from its cast, and when the film does horror it can actually achieve a very creepy mood and contains a lot of elements that stick with you (watch this movie and try waking up at 3 am without feeling a bit creeped out). So how does it fail so spectacularly?

Here’s how:

Pacing and Tone: The movie is very slow. That doesn’t have to be bad. The original Dracula and Frankenstein films were slow. Many great films have used a slow pace to build to a crescendo. And certainly the exorcism we see toward the end of the film is the most interesting part of the movie, but the pace of the film didn’t build to it. And its portrayal underlines the principle problem of the movie. The main story isn’t really Emily Rose’s exorcism. The movie should be called The Trial of the Priest Who Performed the Exorcism of Emily Rose. Since the story takes place during the trial, after the exorcism, the result of eponymous exorcism is known from the film’s first scene. The rest of the possession narrative is told in retrospect. And since the people telling the story are around to tell their part it robs the demon segments of the story of any suspense. This leaves the tension of the story resting entirely on the outcome of the COURT CASE. In a movie about an exorcism our interests are supposed to be vested in the result of a trial. This cuts down on the horror tone exponentially and just as you start to get that nice, horror movie feeling you’re ripped back into cross examinations and plea negotiations. In fact the film is so wrapped in the court case all of the character development and story arcs revolve around those involved in the case, using the exorcism as a set up for a narrative rather than the central point of it. It’s almost as though the filmmakers set out to make a courtroom drama about an exorcism, then toward the end of production decided to throw in some horror elements (some are quite good, some horribly clichéd and have been done so much better by The Exorcist and The Omen.) This “last minute” horror feel is what makes Emily Rose feel like a movie that almost doesn’t belong in the horror category at all…

Skeptics vs True Believers: This may be the biggest opportunity missed. The film makers set up a fascinating dichotomy of a “true believer” lawyer prosecuting the priest and an agnostic defending him and his exorcism. The prosecution goes on about psychiatric and medical conditions that can cause possession-like states, and all are FAR more convincing than the demon parts of the story. It sets up what could have been a “let the audience decide” story of “was it or wasn’t it” a possession. BUT the narrative shows you that according to the movie it was a demon. We see her getting “possessed.” We see the shadowy demonic activities impacting the agnostic prosecutor. We hear testimony from a friendly, smiling, peaceful, attractive pseudo-scientist who talks about how real possession is in direct contrast to the testimony of a doctor played by an actor so known for his slimy characters he played a rogue government official in a friggin Jack Ryan movie. I would have loved to see the evidence presented evenly so both sides are shown as plausible. It would let an audience think and decide what they believe occurred. Instead this film skirts with “here’s a possibility for the skeptics” but then, like the ending of Clue says, “now here’s what really happened.” In the end the “skeptic” part of an exorcism story was done better in The Exorcist when Father Karras declares the demon possessing little Regan identifying itself as “the devil” is as crazy as if she said she was Napoleon Bonaparte. One line. Just as effective. Leaving more screen time for the tense horror for which that film is known.

There’s a famous piece of advice given to writing students that goes something like this: Is what we’re seeing the most interesting part of the story? If not why aren’t we seeing that instead? This concept is at the heart of the problem with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. We have a story about an exorcism. A story with some of the best possession visuals seen to date, thanks largely to the terrific performance by Jennifer Carpenter as Emily. Great horror visuals. Creepy themes. All this crammed into about 20-30 minutes sprinkled throughout the film. We see a courtroom drama unfold. And one that is so wooden, gray, and dreary that it can’t hold a candle to other films in that genre either. Yes A Few Good Men is almost science fiction in its portrayal of courtroom activities, but it’s a hell of a good story and builds to a rousing conclusion. Emily Rose, though it had the acting chops with Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson, instead goes for a somber, quiet tone in the courtroom. It’s a horror movie without much horror and a courtroom movie with dull courtroom scenes.

And it COULD have been so much more. It had all the right elements to be a horror classic, and instead is a compromised drag so ponderous and flatly presented it could’ve been directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Because of this I see this movie as one of the biggest missed opportunities in modern horror history, and a dull, flat horror movie to watch. It’s not even fun to mock as so many other so-called bad horror movies are. Making it my choice for Worst Horror Movie.

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