Demons and, in many cases, the Devil himself have a long history in horror. Silent Swedish film Häxan introduced film-goers to the occult with its fictionalized documentary approach to pagan practices. As public interest in the occult grew, Burn, Witch, Burn, Black Sunday, The Devil Rides Out, and Rosemary’s Baby exploited fears about Satanic cults, witches, and Satan. But William Friedkin’s adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel The Exorcist was something unlike anything audiences had seen in the past. Accounts of screenings in 1973 describe some audience members fainting in aisles. Not surprisingly, horror filmmakers have been trying to catch lightning in a bottle ever since. Some exorcism movies have been pretty good. Others – including The Possession of Hannah Grace, Incarnate, The Cleansing Hour, or The Seventh Day – have been terrible. Below are seven of the best exorcism movies horror has to offer.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of those movies where critic and audiences responses notably diverge. On one hand, critics were pretty lukewarm on the unique mix of supernatural horror and legal drama. Yet there’s a sizable number of horror fans who swear by this ‘sort of based on a true’ story of an exorcism gone wrong. Of course, it helps that this is a high pedigree concept movie backed by an up-and-coming director in Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, The Black Phone, Sinister) and a stellar cast that includes Laura Linney (Ozark) and Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins). When compared to The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is relatively tame. In addition, Derrickson actually fares better with the legal drama than the horror elements. Regardless of its flaws, this still remains one of the better exorcism movies in the horror genre.
Today, we’re living in the Keanusaince – a deserved appreciation of all things Keanu Reeves. There’s general excitement around the recent announcement of Constantine 2. But when the original Constantine came out in 2005, there was plenty of scorn heaped upon. Some of that scorn was directed at the studio’s casting of Keanu Reeves. Additionally, the move took some other liberties with the source material. By the standards of superhero blockbusters today, Constantine is a pretty unremarkable effort. Neither awful nor spectacular, Constantine falls short of other early horror comic adaptations like Blade and Hellboy. But it’s much better than its reputation suggests. Both the cast and intricate Hellblazer mythology make it a fascinating watch. And it’s head and shoulders above Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider movies.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Before horror fans were feeling fatigued from the found-footage craze of the aughts, The Last Exorcism delivered a decent box office surprise. Its story of an evangelical pastor looking for personal redemption by exposing the exorcism business was well suited to the format. Though The Last Exorcism doesn’t quite escape all the demons of the subgenre, it’s often quite scary and holds up to multiple viewings. Like most found-footage movies, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine why someone would keep filming. And the middle act drags even for movie that comes in under 90 minutes. But that finale is disturbing and one of the better ones in recent memory. After over a decade, The Last Exorcism remains a chilling edition to religious horror and the found-footage subgenre.
The Exorcist III (1990)
At the time of its release, audiences and critics dismissed The Exorcist III. Like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, this is another maligned 90s horror movie that has earned critical re-evaluation. Following the disastrous The Exorcist II: The Heretic, William Peter Blatty got behind the camera himself to adapt his own story. This is a true sequel – a movie that continues rather than rehashes The Exorcist’s story. It’s a bold story direction that combines elements of mystery, psychological thriller, and outright horror. There’s a quiet sense of doom that hangs over the proceedings. And The Exorcist III delivers one of the best jumps scares in horror movie history. Throw in strong performances from George C. Scott and Brad Dourif (Halloween II) and The Exorcist III is an underrated classic.
The Medium (2021)
Not since The Exorcist has a demonic possession movie delivered such disturbing scares. But The Medium is more than just a Thai-remix of the horror classic. Director Banjongb Pisanthanakun’s unique blend of Thai folklore, complex family dynamics, and supernatural horror ensures that The Medium is a unique genre experience. There’s a few minor quibbles with this found-footage horror entry. As expected, the faux documentary approach feels unnecessary by the final act. And few movies needs two and a half hours to tell their story. Notwithstanding these minor qualms, The Medium is arguably the scariest and most disturbing movie in recent memory. Though early scenes are reminiscent of The Exorcist, Pisanthanakun crafts his own unique vision. Arguably, The Medium’s closing 15 to 20 minutes are amongst the most uncomfortable you’ll sit through in a movie.
The Conjuring (2013)
It’s the movie that spawned not just sequels, but an entire horror universe not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And The Conjuring is a horror classic on its own merits. Today, director and writer James Wan is playing in the DCEU sandbox with his well-received Aquaman movie (and upcoming sequel). But Wan is responsible for some of the best horror movies of the century including Saw, Malignant, and Insidious. With The Conjuring, Wan and co-writers Chad and Carey W. Hayes made a modern horror movie that was frightening from start to finish. It’s a modern-day blending of The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist that never forgets to give audiences characters for whom to care. Simply put, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson’s Lorraine and Ed Warren are so compelling that they have easily carried the weight of a franchise.
1 – The Exorcist (1973)
Was this ever in doubt? Could any other horror movie occupy this spot? The Exorcist isn’t just the prototypical horror movie – it remains one of the best horror movies ever produced. Nearly 50 years have passed since it shocked audiences and it hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock or disturb. Director William Friedkin crafted both an unnerving horror movie and a compelling drama that asks tough questions about faith that still resonate. Even if The Exorcist had lost some of its potency – which it hasn’t – its impact on the genre alone would earn it the top spot on this list.