Culture

Exorcise This: 6 Great Possession & Exorcism Movies

Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller in ‘The Exorcist’/Still © 1973 Warner Bros.
Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller in ‘The Exorcist’/Still © 1973 Warner Bros.

With “The Walking Dead” reaching the end of its third season, dedicated fans may find themselves exhibiting withdrawal symptoms similar to those afflicting the series’ horrifying zombified “walkers”: pale skin, blank stares, gradually decaying flesh (well, hopefully not that last one).

Thankfully, all you suffering fans may soon have a tonic for what ails you. Not only is “The Walking Dead” coming back for a fourth season, but there’s also word on the street that series creator Robert Kirkman (on whose comics the show is based) has another creepy comic book and television series in the works. This one will take place in the world of exorcism, following a man who has been “plagued by possession since he was a child. Now an adult, he embarks on a spiritual journey to find answers but what he uncovers could mean the end of life on Earth as we know it.”

Kirkman is developing the series for Fox International Channels, which distributes AMC’s “The Walking Dead” worldwide, and the studio brass are excited for the new series’ potential. “Exorcism has captivated movie audiences all over the world but has never been explored on television,” Sharon Tal Yguado, who heads up global scripted programming for FIC, told Entertainment Weekly.

This, of course, got us thinking about the most captivating exorcism/possession movies out there, and so while you wait for Kirkman’s unique take on the genre, here are a few of our favorite exorcism films to hold you over:

"The Exorcist" (1973)
Clearly, we have to start with the granddaddy of the genre. So terrorized was evangelist minister Billy Graham by this groundbreaking horror film, that he’s rumored to have theorized that there was evil lurking within the physical celluloid itself. We don’t know about that, but “The Exorcist,” about the demonic possession of twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), was unsettling enough that some theaters offered Exorcist barf bags and one particularly frightened filmgoer fainted and broke his jaw during a screening of the film. But this forbear of exorcism movies isn’t just notable because of how intensely scary it is -- it’s also an incredible piece of filmmaking, nominated for ten Academy Awards and winning for sound and for William Peter Blatty’s screenplay (adapted from his novel of the same name).

"Ghostbusters" (1984)
Sure they’re dealing generally with ghosts, not demons, but when you get down to it, the Ivan Reitman classic features some of the most prolific and effective exorcists ever to grace the silver screen as Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) and the rest of the crew save New York City from the evil wrath of Gozer the Gozerian and his ghostly minions. Number twenty-eight on AFI’s list of the hundred best comedies, “Ghostbusters” is clearly hilarious, but there are just enough jolts along the way to give it a creepy kick (we remember being very scared as the guys encounter their first real ghost in the library). And besides, Sigourney Weaver as the bewitched Dana delivers what is likely the best possessed-person catch phrase ever: “There is no Dana, only Zuul.”

"Beetlejuice" (1988)
Another untraditional addition to the exorcism canon, but it's well worth consideration. In a reverse of the standard “Boy meets exorcist. Boy asks exorcist to get rid of supernatural being” story, this Tim Burton comedy asks, What if it’s the supernaturals that need to expel the humans? As Adam and Barbara Maitland, the dearly departed couple who want to evict the new obnoxious (and living) owners of their house, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are alternately hilarious and touching as they discover the extent of their ghostly abilities, and Winona Ryder is at her alt-girl best as Lydia, the sensitive daughter of the undead interlopers. But, of course, Michael Keaton steals the show in his unctuous, antic tour-de-force as the exorcist called in to get rid of these nasty human invaders. And for those who prefer the more typical possession arrangement, “Beetlejuice” delivers with the unforgettable Day-O scene, when Adam and Barbara try to terrify their unwelcome houseguests but unwittingly create one of the best musical numbers in recent memory.

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (2005)
While some horror fans criticized the film for not being blood-curdlingly bloody enough, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” succeeds as a kind of thinking person’s exorcist movie, blending courtroom drama with typical demon possession fare. Tom Wilkinson stars as a priest charged with negligent homicide when his attempts to exorcise demons from an afflicted young parishioner, Emily Rose (the excellent Jennifer Carpenter), result in her death. Prosecutors claim that Emily’s increasingly erratic behavior in her final days was caused by psychotic epileptic disorder, while the father and his attorney (Laura Linney) argue that it was a bad case of demon disease. What’s most compelling about this movie, as Roger Ebert pointed out, "is that it asks a secular institution, the court, to decide a question that hinges on matters the court cannot have an opinion on.”

"Drag Me to Hell" (2009)
It’s not often that a gross-out horror film, complete with a talking goat, dangerous dentures, and all manner of oozing, repugnant bodily fluids, becomes a New York Times Critics’ Pick. But Sam Raimi’s funny and flamboyantly terrifying fright flick is worthy of the honor. Alison Lohman stars as Christine, a put-upon bank employee, who, to satisfy her demanding boss, turns down an old crone’s request for a mortgage extension. Turns out to be a big mistake as the crone (Lorna Raver in what the Times called a “gleefully disgusting” turn) returns to exact her revenge -- a curse that will plague poor Christine with three days of torturous agony on earth, before dragging her downstairs for another eternal round. The entire film is a raucous, disgusting, often very scary, good time, but the séance-exorcism scene in which the demon that’s plaguing Christine passes from host to host, reaches a fever pitch of operatic proportions.

"The Rite" (2011)
Few types of roles offer as much opportunity for good old-fashioned scenery chomping than the demon-possessed protagonist. And there are few actors we’d rather watch chomp scenery than Anthony Hopkins. As Father Lucas Trevant, a Jesuit priest with a penchant for exorcism, who after trying to rescue a sixteen-year-old girl from a dastardly demon becomes possessed himself, Hopkins gets to tuck in. He delivers a hammy, but satisfyingly creepy performance, spewing Hungarian and nails (literally) before he’s saved. But in the midst of all this over-the-top schlock, “The Rite,” loosely based on Matt Baglio’s nonfiction book The Rite: The Making of A Modern Exorcist, digs deeper into the religious origins of exorcism than do most others of this genre, leaving Father Gary Thomas, the priest on whom the film is based, to call it a “movie about faith.”