November 20, 2012

Death Rattle Double Feature: Anneliese Michel

Anneliese Michel (1952-1976) was a young woman whose epileptic seizures and hallucinations caused speculations amongst her strict Catholic family that she was possessed by demons. Michel herself was also convinced that her body was being taken over by the Devil. After various failed medical treatments and over sixty exorcisms that would sometimes last for hours, Michel died from malnutrition and dehydration.

This week's Double Feature was suggested by Martijn of OMG Entertainment and BloedLink FilmBlog, and both movies are based on the story of Anneliese Michel. Each film, however, tells her story from a different perspective, with one taking certain liberties for the sake of translating into a presentable and marketable horror movie while the other stays loyal to what really went down.

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is a film that I had purposely avoided over the years, mainly because I'm just not a fan of movies about exorcism and the Catholic church in general. According to the title cards at the opening, EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE was indeed based on a true story. What they failed to mention is that it's loosely based on a true story and that the facts were greatly exaggerated. The same can be said for pretty much every other horror movie that claims to be "based on a true story", but I totally understand the logic behind this. It's marketing. If people are dumb enough to believe something like this is real, they're gonna tell their friends about it and it'll create a chain reaction of gullible people dumping money into a film like this.

Watching it, I was shocked to find out that EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE is essentially a courtroom drama, not a horror movie. There are certainly elements of a horror movie, but the entire film evolves around a court case, and the story of Emily Rose is told through said trial as various people are testifying. I was also shocked to find out that the film takes place in present-day. Going into it, I figured it would be a proper biopic of Anneliese Michel, albeit with the names and locations changed to protect the innocent and what-have-you, but it's not the case at all (no pun intended). That right there should give you an idea of how little of the "true story" is intact. How it's all set up is that Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) dies during an exorcism, and so her exorcist, Bishop Moore, is held responsible and subsequently imprisoned and put on trial. A hotshot female lawyer named Erin is more or less assigned to defend the Bishop by her Law Firm, which she's not too happy about for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, she takes the case with hopes that she can get some exposure out of it. The trial proves to be an eye-opening and life-changing experience for Erin, who realizes that perhaps there are some dark forces out there that defy logical explanation.

As you'd expect, there's a lot of discussion and debating regarding the age old argument of religion versus medicine, paranormal phenomena versus scientific explanation, so on and so forth. The court case allows both sides of the argument to be heard and both interpretations of the circumstances surrounding Emily's death to be told. The film, it should be said, is understandably bias towards the supernatural angle for cinematic effect. In the meantime, we get to see Jennifer Carpenter's utterly chilling portrayal of Emily Rose, culminating with one of the most impressive and frightening demonic possession sequences I have ever seen.

Aside from Carpenter's physical performance, another impressive element of the film is the use of color and lighting. Visually, there are definitely some Argento and Bava-esque moments in EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE with gelled lighting and shadows, and in general there's some cool, swooping camera work during the possession scenes. One thing that I didn't particularly care for was Laura Linney in the lead role, and this entirely has to do with the fact that she played the same fucking role in PRIMAL FEAR! Aside from that, this is a very watchable movie, which is usually the case with courtroom dramas in which there are constant developments and reveals that move the story along. The film does drag somewhat towards the end, and it's arguable that it slightly overstays its welcome at around two hours in length, but there's still that lingering pay-off of how the trial will end. Ultimately, I didn't quite understand the logic behind certain decisions that Linney's character made, and I don't really know how to feel about the outcome of the case, but I'll just leave it at that. As a "true story", this film is a joke, but as a film that tackles the subject of demonic possession and presents it in an interesting way, you could do a lot worse than EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE.

Germany's REQUIEM on the other hand is much more loyal to the story of Anneliese. Based on the little amount of research I did on her (enough to get the gist of the circumstances surrounding her affliction and death), I can confidently say that REQUIEM doesn't change anything at all except for the names of the characters and perhaps specific locations.

REQUIEM focuses on Michaela Klingler (Sandra Hüller), who, like Anneliese, lives with a strict Catholic family (more specifically a domineering, old-fashioned mother and a lenient but protective father) and finally breaks away from them at the age of 21 to attend college. Things seem to be going well at first. Despite initially being ostracized for not being as glamorous as other girls, she makes a new friend and even begins dating someone, but her epilepsy and what she believes to be hallucinations really put a damper on her ability to socialize and make any progress in school. Strangely, her first hallucination occurs when she attempts to pick up a rosary off the ground, which sort of coincides with a sexual awakening that she experiences. Because of that episode and other similar incidents, she gradually becomes convinced that the Devil is the cause of her hallucinations. Her family and certain religious figures in her life eventually intervene, and the film raises a lot of interesting questions in the meantime.

This film is set in the 70s but you don't really see this until Michaela goes to college and you hear certain music played in nightclubs and see some dated fashion trends. I'm a fan of period films that don't beat you over the head with references to pop culture and various trends, especially when those films aren't necessarily about a specific decade. Something else I'm a fan of is when movies tackle touchy subjects like religion and present everything in an unbiased manner while still questioning certain things in a way that won't turn anyone off, regardless of religious preference. REQUIEM brilliantly plays with how the characters in the film are presented and how their faith comes into play as the story evolves. This results in Michaela being torn in different directions as her condition worsens, with people on one side trying to use science and medicine to save her while others seek the help of God. The thing is, there are no right or wrong answers here, even when you look back at the source material. Both sides failed.

As much as it pains me to say it, REQUIEM is a very dull movie. As it started, I thought "This is gonna be a long 90 minutes" and I was right. It isn't the most entertaining or watchable movie, and the muted color scheme and appropriately gloomy look of the film doesn't help matters much. REQUIEM is a very well-acted and well-written film, though, with amazing performances from Sandra Hüller as Michaela and Burghart Klaußner as her father. In fact, there isn't a single weak performance in the bunch and everyone in the film is utterly believable. The relationship between Michaela and her father in particular was a real highlight, especially as her health worsened and the film quickly approached its conclusion. On a side note, Sandra Hüller is one of the worst dancers I've ever seen. She makes Al Pacino in CRUISING look like Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. All of that being said, if you want to see any cinematic interpretations of Anneliese Michele's doomed existence, EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE and REQUIEM are two options, with the former being the more accessible but exaggerated version and the latter being the more loyal to what really happened.

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