Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn’t find anything.
Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus.
No, I can’t explain the title, either. Yes, it’s an exorcism movie, but as far as I know, it’s gibberish. It was also released under the even worse generic title, The Possession of Emma Evans.
But don’t let that throw you. The film is wonderful. It’s about a possessed teenage girl, and her uncle the priest who tries to help her, and yes, that’s about as basic as it comes. But as with many horror movies working in well-established genres, the fun–and the originality–is in the details.
The movie is set in England, and despite being a Spanish production, is performed in English. Teenage Emma (Sophie Vavasseur) is, along with her brother Mark, homeschooled by well-meaning but oblivious parents (Richard Felix and Jo Anne Stockham). Right off the bat this is interesting, because the kids are not homeschooled out of religious beliefs, but out of a sense that the public schools are inadequate. Emma wants to attend regular school with kids her own age, since her only friends are her cousins Alex and Rose. She’s an unhappy, isolated but basically good girl whose possession is unexpected and, as it turns out, surprising for a number of reasons.
We’ve all seen The Exorcist, so we know how possession usually manifests. Most of those tropes are here, but instead of being cranked up, director Manuel Carbalo dials them way down: when Emma levitates, it’s only about a foot off the floor, and when the demon takes control and makes her do things, they’re small and insidious, not grand gestures of evil.
And the plot, by David Muñoz (who also co-wrote Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone) really doesn’t go where you expect. The first exorcism session occurs pretty early in the film, so you know immediately that the story is about something other than the standard good versus evil. I won’t spoil it by giving away more, but trust me: although the initial build-up is slow, the payoff is worth it.
Currently, Exorcismus is streaming on Netflix. You can find the trailer on YouTube, but if you really want to be surprised, don’t watch it: since, as I said, the movie is so low-key, they’ve had to cobble together a lot of the high points.