Possession and a loss of personal control, as I said earlier elsewhere in this series, are one of the things that most scares me in horror movies. It’s no surprise, then, that I approach the subject of demon possession movies with some trepidation. I think with these movies, the phrase “Your Mileage May Vary” is terribly appropriate, because if you aren’t scared by these movies, or the ideas they contain, your list will be very different from mine.
Demons and devils in movies seem to be of two different varieties: The havoc-wreaking kind, and the possessing and controlling kind. There is frequent cross-over, too, as some uglies will possess a victim and then use that person to wreak havoc.
Curiously, there are very few “deal with the devil” movies, although that motif is still widespread in literature and short stories. I wonder why that is. I love those stories, myself. But these movies below kept me up at night, thinking and wondering, and concocting elaborate contingency plans for what to do if I ever come across a moldering old tome in a deserted cabin.
5. Frailty (2001)
I don’t know if this strictly qualifies, but I think it does; not just the subject matter of the film, but also the way in which it’s presented. Two brothers are put into an abusive situation because their father thinks he’s been tasked by God to kill demons in human form—with an axe. Because, um, that’s more Christian? It’s shuddersome, is what it is.
We bounce back and forth between scenes of the boys growing up in fear of their father and one of the brothers talking to the FBI, claiming that his dead brother was the “God’s Hand” serial killer they have been chasing. Demonic possession factors heavily into the story and colors our perceptions of what we’re seeing with our own eyes. Frailty was Bill Paxton’s directorial debut (he also plays the father) and it’s full of great actors giving great performances, and a couple of twists you won’t see coming.
4. Curse of the Demon (1957)
Adapted successfully from the M.R. James story, “Casting the Runes” Curse of the Demon (the slightly longer Night of the Demon is the British release of the same movie) is high on the list despite being mostly atmospheric and moody until the big reveal at the end.
As a story, it’s well-done, even if every single still and ad campaign I’ve seen for the movie insisted on spoiling the surprise at the end. Gifted director Jacques Tourneur filmed Night of the Demon like a film noir movie, which really helps with the atmosphere. Emphasizing form over function, Night of the Demon is evocative, if not terrifying, but it’s still really good and satisfying as a movie.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Arguably Roman Polanski’s most famous movie, and the film that made Mia Farrow a star, Rosemary’s Baby is a study in paranoia straight out of the Cornell Woolrich playbook, even though the book was written by Ira Levin. Maybe my favorite thing of all about the movie is that it’s produced by the legendary William Castle, who should need no introduction to anyone reading this list.
Unfortunately, while the paranoia is spot on, the pacing is positively glacial. If you’ve never seen it before, you’ll sit on your hands wondering what’s going to happen next. After you’ve seen it, you may want to fast forward through the middle hour of the film. However, the payoff, when it finally comes, is pretty disturbing.
The movie that put Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi on the map is also a cult classic by any definition you’d care to use. Like the other horror movies in Raimi’s canon, the first Evil Dead movie has a little bit of everything, including humor. Maybe the humor is there because Raimi also chose to include a scene wherein a demonic tree rapes one of the girls. Who can really say?
This movie takes the “Five kids head out to a cabin in the woods” to new levels, which the recent remake thankfully kept intact, and the brilliant Cabin in the Woods referenced so reverently. The Evil Dead is violent, bawdy, colorful, funny, and yeah, it’s even scary in places. The shoestring budget and subsequent effects may turn off new viewers, but if you’re going to call yourself a horror movie connoisseur and you haven't watched The Evil Dead trilogy, then you’re not doing it right.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Two priests, one young and one old, a little girl with an imaginary friend, and a concerned high society mother are the focus of William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s novel. It’s a long film, with lots of apparent side trips, but in the end, you’ll see, it all comes together. Special effects legend Dick Smith created the complicated and subtle make-ups for the movie, and it’s mostly through the special effects that the jacked-up horror comes across, and very convincingly, at that.
The movie is legendary, and widely considered to be one of the scariest movies of all time. It benefited at the time from the trend in Hollywood filmmaking towards realism and a kind of stylized “no style,” which gives the movie a kind of dull flatness to it. When the demon hits the fan, it’s such a marked contrast to the rest of the movie that it’s legitimately shocking and off-putting. Despite numerous attempts to make a franchise out of the success of the first film, the original movie remains the best by a considerable margin. All other possession movies are compared to it, as a result.