Performing is an artwork kind, and behind each iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the artwork behind a few of movie and tv’s best characters. This time, we flip the highlight on Jennifer Carpenter because the titular character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
When somebody says the phrase “exorcism,” it’s unimaginable to not think about Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil lined in inexperienced vomit and spinning her head round in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. That efficiency shocked the world with its brutality and vulgarity and resulted in a wave of knock-offs that seemed to capitalize on the phenomenon, from Italy’s wildly eccentric Past the Door to the Blaxploitation traditional Abby.
Along with the intense copycats, Blair’s efficiency turned much more ingrained in popular culture because the touchstone for anybody desirous to spoof exorcism motion pictures, like Richard Pryor’s hilarious try at exorcising a possessed Laraine Newman on Saturday Evening Reside or when Natasha Lyonne took a crack at spewing pea soup in Scary Film 2. In 1990, Blair even had the prospect to lampoon herself when she starred alongside Leslie Nielsen within the parody movie Repossessed. When you think about what made the exorcism subgenre fashionable, it begins and ends with Blair’s Academy Award-nominated function.
However this well-known depiction is at odds with the fashionable mode of possession performances. Whenever you take a look at the final fifteen years of exorcism-related motion pictures, few of them exude that very same Regan MacNeil power. Demonic possession isn’t nearly twisting heads or crawling downstairs anymore. These actors at the moment are contorting each a part of their physique into unnatural shapes to create an intensely bodily efficiency that’s patently completely different from all the things The Exorcist made well-known.
This main shift in model got here in 2005 beginning with Jennifer Carpenter’s fiercely dedicated portrayal of the title character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
The movie is a few priest on trial for an exorcism that resulted in a younger lady’s loss of life, and it was capable of captivate audiences by utterly rewriting the possession efficiency playbook. Carpenter’s starkly practical strategy to exhibiting what it’d seem like for somebody’s physique to be taken over by a demonic pressure subverted each expectation we had after watching Linda Blair clones for many years. We’d merely by no means seen a possessed lady like Emily Rose earlier than, which was director Scott Derrickson’s intention.
As Carpenter recalled in 2005, ”Scott mentioned, ‘Think about the entire clichés you may consider while you hear that phrase exorcism and let’s transfer as far-off from it as attainable as a result of if it’s not new, it’s not going to be within the film.’”
In preparation for the function, Carpenter did her homework. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which purports itself to be a real story, actually is predicated on an precise courtroom case involving a demonic possession: the 1976 loss of life of Anneliese Michel in Germany. Carpenter used this actual occasion and a 1981 e book concerning the case as her beginning place, though she didn’t need to make this merely an autobiographical depiction of Anneliese.
The Julliard graduate researched Kabuki theatre, which is notable for its hyper-stylized utilization of bodily gestures to characterize feelings and character intentions. The angled, inflexible posturing of the artwork kind could be completely fitted to a personality who needed to talk a lot with simply her physique. Since epilepsy is a theorized rationalization for possession instances — and a serious plot level within the movie — Carpenter additionally researched how our muscular tissues can convulse and stiffen throughout tonic-clonic seizures, which might encourage the unsettling shapes we see her in in the course of the movie’s haunting dormitory sequences.
Carpenter’s impulses additionally fluctuate fairly in a different way from Linda Blair’s. In The Exorcist, a lot of Blair’s efficiency comes from an inside stimulus, as if the demon Pazuzu was actually inside her physique. Except for a violent convulsion early within the movie, Blair’s physicality is as if Pazuzu had slipped below Regan’s pores and skin and was controlling her like a machine.
The alternative is true for Carpenter. The way in which this possession controls her is as if it’s coming from an exterior stimulus: some unseen pressure is controlling her actions from outdoors of her physique, much like a toddler taking part in with a rag doll. It’s evident within the scene the place Emily Rose is possessed for the primary time. Like a marionette on a string, her arms are wrenched above her head as she lies flat in mattress together with her limbs transferring wildly.
When her boyfriend (performed by Joshua Shut) wakes to seek out Emily catatonic on her dorm room flooring, it seems to be like one thing is forcing her physique right into a twisted contortion, holding her legs and arms in place as her neck juts off the bottom, her head suspended in air. The Exorcist hadn’t ready us for this sort of picture. This wasn’t Regan strapped to a mattress and even the infamously deleted “spider stroll” sequence. It was a completely new characterization that frightened us by how actual it appeared. On this scene, you may see the affect Carpenter’s analysis on seizures had on her efficiency; we will’t inform if that is some darkish pressure from Hell restraining her or only a helpless lady affected by an epileptic match.
We’re rather less believing that it’s a match when her boyfriend follows her right into a Catholic cathedral. As she mutters repeatedly to herself in entrance of a big crucifix, she turns to have a look at him and we see pleading desperation in her eyes that we by no means see in Linda Blair’s. There’s actual worry in Emily as she appears to grasp what is going on to her, whereas Regan stays unconscious to her possession till the very finish.
Emily is totally conscious as one thing bends her backbone abnormally backward whereas her toes stay rooted to the bottom just like the pressure is trying to drag her away from the altar. It’s a rare picture that Derrickson needed to understand with as little laptop technology as attainable. Impressively, the back-breaking stunt was completed virtually completely by Carpenter, who solely had a small stand behind her that was digitally erased.
It’s this hanging picture that will show probably the most influential for the following wave of possession performances, like Ashley Bell’s in The Final Exorcism. The discovered footage movie, which got here out 5 years after The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is extremely well-conceived and authentic, however the central picture of Bell contorting herself right into a human query mark is so evocative of what Carpenter completed that it’s troublesome to low cost it as something aside from imitation.
In subsequent years, extra actors would riff on Carpenter’s tortuous efficiency, from Bonnie Morgan in The Satan Inside in 2012 to Kirby Johnson within the equally titled The Possession of Hannah Grace in 2018. Now it simply doesn’t really feel like an exorcism film anymore until the possessed particular person is both folded like origami or tangled in a knot. That she might erase a popular culture phenomenon and revitalize a dormant subgenre is proof of how terrifying Jennifer Carpenter is as Emily Rose.
Regardless that Carpenter’s possession efficiency has usurped Linda Blair’s, what was as soon as refreshing has once more inevitably turn into clichéd. Greater than a decade after the discharge of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, banal shlock like 2013’s The Material or 2015’s The Exorcism of Molly Hartley has made Carpenter’s model of possession really feel trite and overdone.
However identical to how Regan MacNeil remains to be deeply unnerving after many years of emulation, no quantity of mimicry can tarnish what Jennifer Carpenter achieved. Her efficiency is the fashionable benchmark for exorcism motion pictures, and fifteen years later, her practical strategy stays as efficient as ever.