Some of our simplest stories are based on the age old idea of ephemeral good vs. tactile evil. Indeed, such broad, basic turns allow complexity to be cleared away, turning everything into a battle between God and Satan. In modern filmmaking, many such cautionary tales have been transformed into intense dramas or straight-ahead scarefests, usually centering on a war for the very soul of mankind as realized through cases of demonic possession and/or exorcism. With Deliver Us from Evil just the latest movie mash-up to add Ol’ Scratch to its cinematics, we bring you 10 other efforts which did a definitive job of highlighting the horrors of hell as well as our earthbound attempts to rid ourselves of same via ritual. From ordinary to over the top, these films find a new way of making the antiquated seem fresh while still maintaining the religious themes within the experience.
Using the same circumstances that would inspire our number five entry on the list, this German film tells the story of a young woman, afflicted with epilepsy, who many in her church believe is actually possessed by demons. Eschewing the normal sensationalism of special effects for a more dramatic, documentary style, the story follows our heroine as she struggles to live a normal life while dealing with the real possibility that her problems are indeed Satanic in nature. A spellbinding and subtle scarefest.
Ron Howard’s brother Clint plays a pudgy dork at an elite all-boys military academy. Mercilessly picked on by the others, he becomes obsessed with a book he finds in the cellar of the school’s church. Turns out, it belonged to a devil-worshiping priest banished during the Dark Ages. Using the then-novel twist of computer technology, our hapless hero starts translating and gets revenge on the bullies who taunted and teased him. When the dead cleric tries to return, however, creepshow chaos ensues.
All throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Italian studios made a mint out of mimicking and/or outright stealing ideas and plotpoints from successful Hollywood films. In this case, The Exorcist is reimagined as the story of a young San Francisco mother who, Rosemary’s Baby style, may be carrying the son of Satan in her womb. Hokey and horrifying, the film lacks Friedkin’s determined generation gap subtext, but offers up more than enough scares and Satanic splatter to make even the most skeptical fright fan queasy.
After the incredible disappointment of Exorcist II: The Heretic, original book author William Peter Blatty convinced studio heads that he could make a better possession film. Using his recent novel as a jumping off point, we wind up with a police procedural that links a series of brutal murders with religious overtones to the previous possession of Regan MacNeil. Showing his inexperience behind the lens, the fledgling director still found moments that remain locked in the nightmares of unsuspecting viewers, including an unforgettable hospital corridor “encounter.”
A cop played by Denzel Washington manages to capture an elusive serial killer. After he is executed, a string of copycat crimes ensue. When that murderer is confronted, he makes a startling claim. Neither man is responsible for their actions. Instead, a shapeshifting demon named Azazel is possessing them, hoping these incredibly brutal acts will bring about the Apocalypse as a result. As the entity jumps from being to being, our hero must stop him before civilization falls and damnation rules the planet.
A priest is accused of negligent homicide when he performs an exorcism on the title character. Defended in court, we witness both the trial and the events leading up to the charges. Director Scott Derrickson does a terrific job of balancing the legalese with legitimate scares, and Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter) gives a career-defining turn as the young woman who may or may not have a real medical condition — epilepsy and/or schizophrenia — as the root cause of her “issues.” An unnerving and nail biting experience.
John Carpenter was inspired by a series of scientific journal articles to take on a reality (not faith) based view of the Antichrist and his return to Earth. In this case, a large cylinder filled with liquid evil rests in the basement of a rotting LA church, with coded information suggesting it is the very essence of the devil himself. When a team of researchers accidentally unleash the fluid, several become possessed, with only one goal in their mind — bring Satan back.
Ken Russell took a book by Aldous Huxley (and a play based on it) and crafted one of the most clever and creepy anti-religious screeds ever. Oliver Reed is a rogue priest given power over Loudun, France. When a crazed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) throws herself at him, he rejects her advances. Obsessed with the flawed man of the cloth, the Sister accuses him of witchcraft and demonic possession. A trial and execution result. Russell excels with his dark and disturbing imagery and lurid exploitation elements.
While the original [REC] offers up what appears to be the zombie takeover of a Spanish apartment complex, the sequel suggested that the outbreak wasn’t viral in nature at all. Instead, thanks to a conspiracy involving a priest, a scientist, the Vatican, and a possessed girl, the Church becomes bent on proving that demons are real and able to infect their “hosts” with a similar Satanic hunger. And then things really get out of hand. One of the best installments in the growing franchise.
The granddaddy of all demonic possession films, and an amazing achievement considering when and how it was made. For the Jesus Christ Superstar ’70s, this was a radical and shocking cinematic statement. Today, most of what make-up genius Dick Smith achieved with prosthetics and director William Friedkin created with practical F/X would be all CG, but no computer could match the intensity and terror spelled out on the screen. A post-modern classic that is still as powerful and potent today as it was 41 years ago.