Devil in the Details

Exorcism of Emily Rose and Junebugs

Some people will tell you that a new demonic possession flick every couple of years is just as vital to the system as regular bowel movements. What goes in must come out, after all, and even if we can't always purge the devils inside us, we can at least have the satisfaction of watching others attempt to do so, usually in spectacularly gruesome fashion, on screen.

At the risk of running the metaphor into the ground, it's got to be said that anyone walking into The Exorcism of Emily Rose expecting a head-swiveling, pea-soup-puking time is going to wind up feeling more than a wee bit constipated. From its chock-full-o-thespians cast (Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson and Campbell Scott, to name a few) to the real live M.D. serving as a script consultant, all signs point to a horror movie with a pedigree. As it turns out, that's mostly a polite way of saying it's not really very interested in scaring us.

Things start promisingly enough, with ominous shrieking and gurgling on the soundtrack, and enigmatic images of tortured figures wandering through desolate, otherworldly landscapes. It's mostly downhill from there, though, since the titular exorcism is already over and done with by the time the movie begins. What details we get are doled out in flashbacked dribs and drabs related by various characters in, of all places, a courtroom.

Yep, you heard right. Be warned that — and here comes the really scary part — The Exorcism of Emily Rose belongs to that most dreaded of all genres, the courtroom drama, with a little bit of horror thrown in to keep the natives from getting too restless. It's The Exorcist meets A Few Good Men, and if that sounds dangerously close to a skit on MAD TV, then so be it. Call it Cour-Horror (rhymes twice with bore), and then run away as fast as you can.

The movie never turns into a full-blown parody, but it might be better if it did. There's a really good joke lingering just beneath the surface here, but the film is simply too full of its own good intentions to figure it out.

The movie gets its set-up out of the way in a flash, introducing hotshot lawyer Erin (Linney) who's defending a kindly priest (Wilkinson) accused of manslaughter in the botched exorcism of college freshman Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). Everybody has a story to tell, and we get a series of witnesses taking the stand with conflicting accounts of Emily's struggle with what some call paranoid schizophrenia and others swear is possession.

In brief flashbacks, we see the girl's body contorted into a variety of impossible positions, unearthly sounds issuing from her throat, and doing more bug-eating than Dracula's pal Renfield. At one point, everyone Emily sees on the street starts looking like that pasty-faced guy with the gaping mouth from Munch's "The Scream" painting, a sight that generated more giggles than gasps from the audience on the night that I saw the film. (When you're stacking your iconography up against The Exorcist, you've got to be really, really good — otherwise you're, you should pardon the expression, dead.)

There are a few more things going bump in the night here and there, but the scares turn out to be red herrings of the most annoying sort — visual aids to an endless series of overly earnest arguments about the dueling natures of faith and reason. Character after character explains what we're seeing, weighing in on whether Emily is possessed or just paranoid, in need of an exorcist or just better meds.

As in so many horror (and art) films, Emily Rose leaves us hanging in the balance between reality and illusion, unsure if we're witnessing the natural or supernatural. But, a courtroom drama to the end, the movie just won't shut up about it.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose lays its arguments out in such a hopelessly literal fashion that nothing is left to the imagination. Some people will probably call this a "thinking person's horror movie," but does that mean we've got to be beaten about the head with what we're supposed to be thinking? Most horror films want to scare us to death. This one prefers to talk us to death.

In any case, the movie isn't a complete washout. Consider it a failed experiment, one that teaches us that when you cross a supposedly respectable genre like the courtroom drama with something so disreputable as the common horror flick, you don't necessarily get an interesting cinematic fusion or even a lively clash of cultures. Apparently, one simply cancels out the other, and what we're left with isn't much of anything at all.

If it's a culture Clash of a more engaging sort you're after, Junebug might be just the ticket this week. Metrosexual city slickers and their rough-hewn North Carolina relatives are the clashing parties here, but the movie is smart and subtle enough to allow us to smile at its characters without turning them into cartoons. Junebug is among those little indie films that win awards at Sundance for their quirky observations about dysfunctional family reunions, but this one happens to actually warrant those awards for a change. Director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan demonstrate a genuine understanding and affection for their small-town subjects (even though I'd wager the filmmakers are somewhat more attuned to their big city characters), and when somebody in this movie does something odd or wacky it usually feels like a natural extension of who that person is, rather than simply something scripted for our amusement.

Junebug isn't a movie that's going to change anybody's life, but there's a surprising amount of clever and thoughtful detail packed into this small film. Anybody even remotely familiar with the movie's little patch of the South is sure to have a particularly good time with Junebug, but there's plenty here for the rest of us to enjoy, too. And we don't need somebody to sit in a witness stand and explain it all to us.