It is certainly a bad omen when a preview audience giggles at scenes intended to be frightening. Free-movie crowds, grateful for the air-conditioning this time of year, will usually devour most anything, no matter how inedible. Yet the longer the movie played, from Tuesday night seemingly into Wednesday morning, the louder their laughter got, to the point where you began to wonder whether this wasn't intentional comedy after all. One almost pities writer-director Scott Derrickson, who will walk into a theater where The Exorcism of Emily Rose is playing one afternoon to see how the movie's playing, and be greeted not by shrieks of terror but the paralyzing howls of disbelief and derision. The director, whose tepid filmography suggests a hard-on for horror (it includes such notables as Urban Legends: Final Cut, which he co-wrote, and the direct-to-Beta Hellraiser: Inferno), may well be scared straight of his obsession and realize it's time to move on to comedy, where he displays a certain deft touch.
It's a sure sign of filmmaking laziness when the director utilizes a gimmicky soundtrack to amp up his chills; if the story ain't working, get a kitty cat to meow into a microphone. Even before the opening credits roll, this is what we're treated to: amplified screams layered over the sound of labored panting and other assorted grunts and groans and guttural noises, which give way to a silent scene of a barbed-wire fence dripping with blood, which is used to spell out the title of the movie. Nothing subtle there, but points awarded for cleverness and cheesiness; more thought went into these few seconds than the entirety of what follows.
And what follows is actually hard to describe -- a tedious courtroom battle commingled with the flashback tale of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), who leaves her idyllic country home for college and, while left alone in her dorm room one night, is raped by an invisible demon, suggesting Derrickson and co-writer Paul Harris Boardman have seen 1981's The Entity a few too many times. But Emily Rose's possession is back-burnered for much of the film, which takes place inside the courtroom where Linney's lonesome Erin Brauner dukes it out with a Protestant prosecutor played by Campbell Scott, whose mustache does most of his heavy lifting. Theirs is intended to be a battle between believers and nonbelievers -- between the religious right and the religious wrong, if you will -- but plays more like a fixed fight, with a resolution so outrageous, you'll conclude that the Michael Jackson jury had more sense.
What little we do see of Emily's possession -- or epilepsy, as the prosecution insists -- consists of not much more than scenes cribbed from The Exorcist II, mostly a lot of demonic growling and spastic body movements. (You must always feel a bit sorry for actresses saddled with such roles; they're given little to do except scream obscenities in dead languages, drool and mewl for their mommies.) It's not scary, merely sad -- a retread of a retread, the cursed doings of a movie trying to repeat the box-office success of a wildly overrated movie (the original Exorcist, which mistook lurid for horrific) without stealing so much from it as to be dismissed as mere copycat. And Wilkinson and Linney don't fare much better: They underact, as if by pretending to be sad, broken people they can lend some gravitas to a film begging to be freed of its possession by a bunch of knuckleheads.