The Roman Catholic Church gets a bum rap.

Don’t get me wrong, they deserve every insult and judgment sent their way for their systemic abuse of children by priests, their insistence on treating women like second class citizens, and for their complicity in the Holocaust, among other things.

But they also get a lot of crap from film critics, who tend to feel the Church is overemphasized in movies, especially those of the horror variety. This may be true, but you have to admit, the Catholics have the best trappings for the genre. The Church goes back millennia, with all the mysticism and unexplained phenomena appertaining thereto. This especially applies to exorcism, which – although it is also practiced by other faiths (including Islam) – is really the Catholic Church’s baby.

And besides, how much box office do you think an Islamic exorcism movie would do these days?

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is based on the story of Anneliese Michel, a German student who, in the mid-1970s, was the subject of one of the rare exorcisms sanctioned by the Church in modern times. The results were less than ideal: Anneliese died of starvation, and her parents and the priests involved in the exorcism were put on trial for negligent homicide.

In the film, Anneliese has become young Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter), a devout small town American girl who heads off to a big city college and goes and gets herself possessed. The family priest, Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), is called in after Emily returns home. Believing she is possessed, he performs an exorcism that goes awry, resulting in his standing trial for her death.

Trying the case are prosecutor Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), a self-described “man of faith” who nonetheless scoffs at the idea of demonic possession, and Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), an agnostic corporate attorney looking to climb the ladder in her firm. Thomas attempts to establish a medical basis for Emily’s death, while Erin – thanks to some creepy moments courtesy of the “dark forces” (as Father Moore calls them) surrounding the trial, comes to realize there may be some credence to the priest’s story.

Anyone who’s seen the previews and is coming into this movie expecting a straight-up horror flick is going to be disappointed. What we have here is a courtroom drama, punctuated by horrific flashbacks. Naturally, any movie that deals with the concept of demonic infestation has to be careful it doesn’t draw too many comparisons to the Big Kahuna of the subject, “The Exorcist.” Fortunately (or not, depending on how big a “Law & Order” fan you are), “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” dwells less on the possession itself than on the subsequent trial. There are elements of Friedkin’s classic here, as any possession movie is going to contain creepy demon fu and a final confrontation between the forces of good and evil. But “Emily” also pulls in references to “The Amityville Horror” and “Ghostbusters” (you’ll know it when you see it) as well.

Linney, as always, does a fine job, and Wilkinson is believable as the tormented priest, but Scott is stuck playing a guy who’s such a douchebag he doesn’t see the hypocrisy in decrying a ritual based on “archaic mythology” when he himself is a Christian (he also has one of those James Keach moustaches favored by LAPD officers). Then again, if anyone gets short shrift, it’s Jennifer Carpenter, whose Emily Rose spends most of the film in painful contortions and barking in Aramaic (maybe Mel Gibson can find a part for her in his next movie).

I have to admit, I don’t believe in this stuff any more than Scott’s character, and yet it still freaks me out. The exorcism scenes are reminiscent of the 1974 film (which I count among the scariest of all time), without being utterly derivative. And even the idea that the defense could trot out some of the stuff they did during the trial and not get laughed out of the courthouse was amusing in it’s own way.

Why Sony decided to assemble a cast that includes the likes of Linney and Wilkinson and then place the untested Derrickson at the helm is beyond me, however. In a more capable director’s hands, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” could have been both a gripping courtroom drama and a chilling “is she or isn’t she?” horror tale. What we have instead is a movie that drifts, almost unmanned, from plot point to plot point. A few more scares and a little less chatter from the principals would have made “Emily” much more memorable.

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