The dilapidated, middle-of-nowhere house is there. So are the single woman’s apartment and the deserted dorm hallway, both so still as night crawls toward morning. But the majority of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true story of a young German woman’s alleged demonic possession in the ’70s, takes place in the most unexpected of locations: a courtroom.
No, writer-director Scott Derrickson’s portrayal of Anneliese Michel’s experience isn’t as balls-out horror-ific as its trailers suggest. But moviegoers hungry for a good fright might be satisfied anyway. Combining the most chilling elements of its famous cousin, The Exorcist, with the supernatural-tinged drama of another misleadingly marketed but much milder thriller, The Skeleton Key, Emily Rose will not only provide fuel for a postfilm debate on the finer points of evil-spirit-related jurisprudence but also give you a bad case of the 3 a.m. willies. (For those who don’t yet know: 3 in the morn happens to be the “demonic witching hour.”)
Onetime Wim Wenders collaborator Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman, who previously worked together on Urban Legends: Final Cut, begin the American-set Emily Rose with the title character’s unseen death. A doctor visits and with a drained face tells Emily’s family, “I cannot state conclusively that the cause of death was natural.” Soon, the priest who had been ministering to Emily, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is arrested for murder. Hotshot attorney and skeptic Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) takes the case when she’s promised partnership if she can get the padre to make a deal, the easier for the church to sweep the scandal under the rug. But Moore isn’t interested: “I care only about telling Emily Rose’s story,” he says to Bruner, insisting that the case go to trial and that he be called to the stand. Opposing them is churchgoing state prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a firm believer in God—though not so much, apparently, in possession.
The question argued in the courtroom is whether 19-year-old Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), a devoutly Catholic Minnesotan recently gone off to college, was truly possessed or, as her school doctor believed, merely epileptic. Emily’s story is then told in flashbacks, from the time she was awakened (yep, at 3 a.m.) in her dorm room by a presence that knocked things from her dresser and pulled the blanket off her before attacking her outright. As the trial continues, with experts of both medicine and otherworldly matters arguing over whether Father Moore’s exorcism attempts and suggestion that Emily stop taking her anti-seizure medication contributed to her death, long courtroom scenes are intercut with mercifully shorter chapters showing Emily getting worse.
Derrickson doesn’t completely stay away from cheap scares of the hissing-cat variety, but many of Emily Rose’s frights come from extended moments of quiet suspense such as a perfectly creepy middle-of-the-night scene in Bruner’s apartment. There are also the standard freaky characteristics of possession: unnaturally twisted postures, violent outbursts showing superhuman strength, guttural voices identifying who’s currently in-house. Michel’s numerous exorcisms were recorded—a detail that Emily Rose includes to truly disturbing effect. (A witness who quite willingly hands off a tape to Bruner tells her, “It’s your burden now!”) CGI is used sparingly, mostly to portray the melting, black-and-gray faces that regularly showed themselves to Emily when she was still trying to function normally, while the flashbacks themselves are tinged orange and red.
The restrained horror combines nicely with Derrickson and Boardman’s smart script, which refreshingly approaches its supernatural subject matter with an intellectual reserve instead of “WTF?!” histrionics. Linney, Wilkinson, and Scott give their usual solid, nonflashy performances here, with their characters each representing different viewpoints and arguing their stances with supporting evidence as well as conviction. The Exorcism of Emily Rose ultimately leaves it up to the audience to decide what truly happened to Anneliese Michel. And even if you don’t buy that the woman was possessed, this telling of her tale will at least leave you admitting that she was the scariest epileptic ever.
There’s little question about the evil that exists in Crónicas, writer-director Sebastián Cordero’s gritty drama about a tabloid-television journalist chasing a story about a serial killer in Babahoyo, Ecuador. The big unknown in the case is the identity of the person who has raped and murdered more than 150 children in the town, where the authorities are ineffectual and the residents prefer to dole out justice themselves.
John Leguizamo stars in his first Spanish-speaking role as Manolo Bonilla, a Miami-based reporter for One Hour With the Truth. While covering the mass funeral of some of the victims, Manolo and his crew, producer Marisa (Talk to Her’s Leonor Watling) and cameraman Ivan (José María Yazpik), witness an equally harrowing event: Returning to town after a solitary road trip, Bible salesman Vinicio Cepeda (Damián Alcázar) accidentally hits a young boy, the twin of one of the murdered, with his truck. Vinicio tries to back his vehicle away from the body, but the gathered crowd interprets this as an attempt to escape and attacks him, eventually stepping back to let the boy’s father, Don Lucho (Henry Layana), inflict his own punishment.
Manolo allows Ivan to film everything before eventually stepping in to break up the men, along with Vinicio’s pregnant wife, Esperanza (Gloria Leiton), and her son from another marriage, Robert (Luiggi Pulla). Both Vinicio and Lucho are arrested, and Vinicio’s harassment continues. Manolo decides to interview the prisoners but is then lured by the prospect of an even bigger story: Vinicio says that he has firsthand information about the criminal Manolo has dubbed “the Monster of Babahoyo,” but he’ll talk only if Manolo agrees to air a sympathetic piece on his imprisonment. To prove that he has the dirt, Vinicio directs Manolo to a girl’s body still buried in a place police stopped searching.
The title of Cordero’s second film (after 1999’s Rodents) translates as “Chronicles,” or news reports, and the focus here isn’t so much on the serial killer as it is on the media’s interpretation of and approach to tragedy. Manolo is a limelight-seeking talking head who keeps Vinicio’s bait from the police in the hope of solving the crime—and sopping up the attention—himself. Naturally, he suspects Vinicio is the killer, but he nonetheless puts together a puff piece that makes Vinicio look like a martyr, which underscores the criticism of Crónicas’ tag line: “If It’s on TV, It Must Be the Truth.”
The usually goofy Leguizamo does nice work here as the pretty-boy reporter, slightly preening but nonetheless sharp as he strategizes the Silence of the Lambs–esque interviews with Vinicio that constitute the bulk of the film. Speaking mostly in Spanish but occasionally slipping into English, Manolo is unmistakably foreign among the poor Latin Americans, who revere him because he’s a television personality yet turn on him when they suspect he feels entitled to the pedestal they put him on. But Cordero’s script ultimately allows Manolo’s competence and, deep down, his morality, to show more strongly than his ego.
More compelling, however, is Alcázar as the suspected killer: Relating details about the murders with a childlike glint in his eye, his game-playing Vinicio is more chilling than, say, the unabashedly criminal Hannibal Lecter. Better yet, Cordero portrays Vinicio as an adored family man, leaving his guilt in question until the film’s end. Even then, the answer is more suggestive than definitive. Like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Crónicas leaves plenty of room for speculation, making a strong case that some mysteries are better left unsolved. CP