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‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’ will raise goosebumps

Great cast, including Linney and Scott, lifts this above typical horror fare. By John Hartl

If you’ve never seen “The Exorcist,” you might be frightened by “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” It’s scarier than the official “Exorcist” sequels and spin-offs, partly because it takes itself as seriously as the original did.

The somber tone is established in the first scenes, which take place after the violent death of Emily Rose, a devout 19-year-old college student (played by Jennifer Carpenter) who was either epileptic or possessed by demons. She was taking medication at the time of her demise, which took place shortly after her priest (Tom Wilkinson) performed an exorcism ritual.

Although her boyfriend (Joshua Close) and family support the priest’s version of what happened, he’s sent to trial for homicide. The prosecutor (Campbell Scott) is a self-professed “man of faith” who doesn’t believe in exorcisms; he tries to make the case that Emily needed her doctors more than she needed a priest. The defense attorney (Laura Linney) is a hard-drinking agnostic who finds herself believing in the priest’s integrity and wondering if supernatural forces are guiding the trial.

Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman’s script sets up a showdown between science and religion that couldn’t be more contemporary, though it’s based on a 1976 case involving Anneliese Michel, a Bavarian girl who died after a similar exorcism ritual. The story has been smoothly updated and moved to the United States (unconvincingly played by Vancouver, B.C.).

Still, “Emily Rose” has just enough risible and overstated moments to keep it from being as effective as “The Exorcist.” Several of the courtroom scenes are redundant, and the two-hour running time becomes a burden. The closing scenes, which hint at divine intervention, make a valiant if strained attempt to invoke “The Song of Bernadette.”

What keeps the movie interesting are the performances and Derrickson’s clever direction. Derrickson previously collaborated with Boardman on “Urban Legends: Final Cut” and “Hellraiser: Inferno”; it goes without saying that this is their classiest production to date. Although they rely on familiar effects — haunted corridors, dark and stormy nights, surprise courtroom witnesses — they manage to raise just enough goose bumps.

You may feel silly about jumping on their command, but they’re awfully good at using that cattle prod. Considerable credit also goes to composer Chris Young and cinematographer Tom Stern, as well as a terrific cast.

Indeed, the movie might be mumbo-jumbo without the contributions of Linney, who suggests demons of her own that are never spelled out in the script, and Wilkinson, who brings rock-solid conviction to his part as a priest with a mission. Carpenter deserves credit just for going through the kind of ordeal that perhaps no actress since Linda Blair has had to deal with.

And the supporting cast is aces: Henry Czerny as a pompous doctor, Mary Beth Hurt as a wise if eccentric judge, Colm Feore as Linney’s mercenary boss, Shohreh Aghdashloo as an exorcism expert, and Scott as a presumptuous prosecutor you love to hate.