The devil is terrifying. Whether viewers are persons of faith or not, there’s something about the devil that cultivates a distinct, almost existential kind of fear. The name alone, uttered in shadows and whispers, is enough to inspire a perennial, frosty chill. For certain audiences, the devil is very much real. For others, the movies he stars in are so chilling and so raw in their depiction of Old Scratch that until the lights go on, whoever is watching just might find themselves believing, too, even if only for a little bit.
If you’re looking for some satanic scares, the following 13 movies are the best there are. A combination of old school horror films and contemporary showcases, the devil is central in all of the following films. Some might be about specific demons — “The Exorcist,” for instance, is actually about Pazuzu — but so long as the creatures are in league with Satan himself, they count. So, grab your Bible, stock up on holy water, say a prayer, and read on … if you dare.
“Devil” is a lot like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in that it is routinely misattributed to the wrong director. No, M. Night Shyamalan did not direct “Devil.” John Erick Dowdle did. Though adapted from a story of Shyamalan’s, the writing and directorial duties were placed in other hands. Still, it’s an easy misattribution to make, on account of both the marketing and how Shyamalan’s inimitable narrative and filmmaking techniques are evident all over “Devil.” An ensemble thriller, in “Devil” five strangers are trapped together in an elevator and soon realize that one of them is the literal Devil himself.
With quick shocks, lots of paranoia, and the kind of twist ending one comes to expect from a Shyamalan production, “Devil” is both familiar and unpredictable. It earns its scares earnestly, the acting is worthwhile, and it’s a prime example of a high concept exploited to maximum effect on a modest budget. The world could certainly use more of this kind of devilry.
Race With The Devil
“Race with the Devil” is an early “Mad Max” prototype with a horror vibe and a whole lot of angry, violent Satanists. Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swift, and Lara Parker star as a pair of married couples on an RV trip to Aspen when they run afoul of a satanic sacrifice. The first act is a tense, slow burn, as the couples, having barely escaped the cult, continue their trip, unaware that the cult is watching their every move. The third act is when everything hits the colloquial fan. Chased down across the freeway, the vehicular stunts are practical, well-choreographed, and genuinely thrilling. Fonda gets to jump between moving vehicles, guns are fired, and the protracted action sequence is an expert example of how to do car chases right.
Not everything about “Race the Devil” is perfect. As deliciously dour as the ending is, the third act is a swift shift into action territory that belies the tension that preceded it. Similarly, the gender politics are dated, even for 1975. As the two wives, Swift and Parker are worse than useless — they’re practically liabilities. It’s especially strange to see Swift behave so helplessly given her other screen credits, and it’s frustrating to see these two talented actors scream and cry without any agency. Still, it’s a one-of-a-kind film. For fans of paranoid thrillers with satanic undertones, there’s little better.
Curse Of The Demon
“Curse of the Demon” (also known as “Night of the Demon”) is genuinely scary in a way that few classic horror films are. That isn’t to say that other older films aren’t frightening, but “Curse of the Demon” is almost prescient in the way it moves to the rhythms of more contemporary horror outings. Directed by Jacques Tourneur, its production was notoriously rife with conflict, with tension rising over both its length and the decision by producer Hal E. Chester to insert the demon itself into the climax; Tourneur wanted to leave it to the viewers’ imaginations.
“Curse of the Demon” stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, a professor intrigued by the death of Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) and his work on the occult, namely his interest in exposing a satanic cult. Holden is soon in over his head and stuck in a cycle of death, curses, and, yes, giant demons. The decision to show the demon itself is still a point of contention — some think it looks silly, while others appreciate the brazenness of the choice — but regardless, there’s little that matches the potent thrills of “Curse of the Demon.” Grounded with peripheral supernatural chills, it reminds audiences that if the devil is real, he exists in shadows and whispers, in the minds and hearts of evil men. It’s true in a way more bombastic entries can’t quite manage.
Prince Of Darkness
“Prince of Darkness” is prime late ’80s John Carpenter. It’s a little goofy, stunningly melodramatic, and full of so much religious dogma and quantum jargon that it’s liable to make one’s head spin all the way around. Still, the second entry in what director John Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy” (coming after “The Thing” and preceding “In the Mouth of Madness”) is a glorious time. It’s gory, silly, and brazenly entertaining. The devil is in the details.
Donald Pleasance stars as a Catholic priest who, along with Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and several of his students, investigates a mysterious green liquid in the basement of a Los Angeles monastery. The monastery belonged to the Brotherhood of Sleep, an old order of men who allegedly communicated through dreams. Shortly after arriving, they deduce that this liquid is the Anti-God, bound to the realm of anti-matter, and likely the father of Satan himself. If that doesn’t make much sense, don’t worry — “Prince of Darkness” doesn’t seem to quite understand it either. With ongoing rumors of a new show in development and Carpenter’s trademark gonzo gore and kinetic energy, “Prince of Darkness” is a curious, devilish beast not to be missed.
The Devil’s Advocate
It’s not a spoiler, per say, to acknowledge that Al Pacino plays the devil himself in “The Devil’s Advocate.” Look, it’s right there in the title. Still, when the film starts, we’re introduced to Pacino as John Milton (get it?), the head of a New York law firm who offers to hire Keanu Reeves’ Kevin Lomax, an unscrupulous defense attorney who has never lost a case, even if it means letting guilty men walk free. Kevin subsequently accepts the offer following a high-profile win, and he and his wife Mary (a sensational Charlize Theron) move to New York.
Haunting occurrences start almost immediately. As Kevin begins his allegorical rise, Mary unravels. She is plagued by visions and nightmares, including a graphic scene in which she sees a child playing with her removed ovaries, and an increasing sense of isolation, compounded by Kevin’s change in demeanor. Kevin’s career becomes harder to manage as he chooses winning over the wellbeing of himself and those he loves. A critical and box office triumph, “The Devil’s Advocate” has been somewhat lost to the annals of time. Seek it out.
The House Of The Devil
“The House of the Devil” director Ti West has had a prolific career. Beyond classics like this and “The Innkeepers,” West has been quite active in genre television, directing episodes of “Scream: The TV Series” and “The Exorcist,” among others. “The House of the Devil” is his third directorial feature, although given the lackluster quality of his first two (sorry, fans of “The Roost”), it might as well be his first.
Jocelin Donahue is authentic as a college student strapped for cash. Eager to secure a new rental on campus, she takes a cryptic babysitting gig from a job board, only to discover that there are no children — she simply needs to watch the house. She’s desperate enough to accept the job anyway, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the homeowners have other, devilish plans. Tense, violent, and replete with exceptional practical gore effects (including one genuinely shocking and unexpected kill) and an early turn by Greta Gerwig, “The House of the Devil” is throwback horror at its best.
The Exorcism Of Emily Rose
Several months ago, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” director Scott Derrickson revealed on Twitter that the movie was originally hit with an R rating on account of star Jennifer Carpenter’s disturbing facial distortions. Done practically in camera, the MPAA found Carpenter’s performance so chilling and visceral that they refused to issue the PG-13 the studio wanted until Derrickson cut some of Carpenter’s more disturbing moments.
Loosely based on the true story of Anneliese Michel, a German woman infamously killed during an exorcism in 1976, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a courtroom procedural with a supernatural shading. Laura Linney stars as the defense attorney representing Tom Wilkinson’s parish priest, who is charged with negligent homicide after Emily Rose dies during his ceremony. The movie jumps back and forth between the courtroom and Emily’s possession, showing both her early symptoms and the eventual demonic takeover. Though somewhat dated — the digital faces and exhausting jump scares are pure ’00s — the performances, especially Jennifer Carpenter’s, are so incredible that the movie will terrify even the most agnostic horror fan.
The Last Exorcism
Just as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was anchored by an awards-worthy performance from Jennifer Carpenter, the found-footage shocker “The Last Exorcism” largely works on account of Ashley Bell’s sympathetic yet chilling performance as a young girl, Nell, whose father believes she is possessed by Satan.
Patrick Fabian plays Cotton Marcus, a reverend who, along with a camera crew, seeks to delegitimize exorcisms. He is attracted to Nell’s case, and in the early goings, director Daniel Stamm keeps the uncertainty terrifyingly high. Audiences aren’t quite sure whether Nell is possessed or just deeply ill. I won’t spoil the answer, but Bell’s performance holds the entire thing together, exhibiting the same disturbing physicality and penchant for unnatural contortions as Jennifer Carpenter. It’s a rapturous performance, and worth the price of admission alone.
Children are terrifying. Even the nice ones are so unpredictable that they can inspire terror. “The Omen,” directed by Richard Donner and written by David Seltzer, takes that idea and runs with it. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick star as Robert and Katherine Thorn, a couple living in Rome, where Peck’s Robert works as a diplomat. When their son dies during childbirth, Robert is convinced by Father Spiletto (Martin Benson) to adopt a child whose mother died, which he keeps secret from Katherine. They name this child Damien. Damien is the Antichrist.
With incredible death scenes, including the best beheading ever committed to celluloid, and an intoxicating take on the satanic panic, “The Omen” is smart, high-toned horror. Cerebral while also conforming to parameters of the genre, “The Omen” is one of the best devil movies ever made. It’s anchored by stellar performances — as Damien, Harvey Spencer Stephens is so exceptional that he earned a Golden Globe nomination, while Jerry Goldsmith won an Oscar for his score. “The Omen” is enduring, too, having earned three sequels, a remake, and even a (quickly canceled) television series. The Antichrist is here to stay.
“Rosemary’s Baby” is a classic. Director Roman Polanski subverted the entire horror genre with his star-studded and deliciously restrained tale of a woman, Rosemary (Mia Farrow), who is pregnant with the Antichrist. There are supernatural horrors throughout, including the movie’s infamous ending, although for most of its run “Rosemary’s Baby” is unconventionally grounded. The scares emanate from creepy neighbors, including an Oscar-winning Ruth Gordon, pregnancy drinks, and trips to the doctor.
Mia Farrow holds the entire enterprise together, embodying both the vulnerability of a new mother and the conviction of second-wave feminism, especially as her husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), gaslights Rosemary into thinking nothing is wrong. A cautionary tale replete with demonic iconography, “Rosemary’s Baby” is well-regarded 50 years after its release for a reason. Terrifying, unconventional, and simply gorgeous to look at, no other movie has managed to capture its power (and that includes its made-for-TV remake).
“The Wailing” is one of the scariest movies ever made. Na Hong-jin’s operatic, dense, and thoroughly frightening sixth feature is almost impossible to describe. Ostensibly the story of a small village in South Korea rattled by the arrival of an enigmatic Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura), “The Wailing” is a frenzied sprint through different horror subgenres. A psychological thriller, an exorcism movie, and a blockbuster grounded in Korean mythos, “The Wailing” is a lot of things. At no point during its nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, though, is it anything less than captivating and terrifying.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the final half hour (which feature the devil, though I won’t say how) is unreservedly the scariest 30 minutes of film I’ve seen in the past decade. With genre-defying performances from Kwak Do-won and Chun Woo-hee and so much mythology to unpack and explore, “The Wailing” is classic cinema. It transcends time and genre with an indefinable capacity to scare. Don’t miss this one.
James Wan is a master. Working on a larger scale in the genre he finds most comforting, the shock maestro reinvented both himself and the horror genre with “The Conjuring.” Gone was Wan’s “Saw”-style gore and macabre Gothicism (see “Dead Silence”). Instead, with stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson playing real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, “The Conjuring” has enough heart to match its terrifying scares.
Wan is at peak form here, turning every nook and cranny of the film’s farmhouse setting into a springboard for gut-wrenching frights. Children’s games, toys, and even wardrobes are used to maximum effect. The cast, which also includes Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston, are more than up to selling the terror. Additionally, Wan wisely keeps many of the horrors unseen, and never lets certain haunts overstay their welcome. “The Conjuring” is the rare horror film that works both in the moment, satisfying that immediate need to jump and feel fear, and long after the credits roll.
“The Exorcist” is a classic, and were it not included here, I wouldn’t fault readers for suspecting that I myself had been possessed by the devil. William Friedkin’s Oscar-winning horror opus, based on the novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, is a subversive, thoroughly terrifying exploration of one girl’s demonic possession. Graphic, vile, and almost antagonistic, it didn’t earn its reputation as the scariest movie ever made for nothing.
Hardened genre veterans might dissemble the truth 50 years after release and allege that “The Exorcist” isn’t all that scary, but the fact remains that without “The Exorcist,” the horror genre — and the entirety of the filmmaking landscape — would look very different today.
Ellen Burstyn stars in the film Chris MacNeil, an actress filming in Georgetown who suspects that her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), has been possessed by some demonic force. Friedkin wisely stacked “The Exorcist” to the rafters with stellar performances, breakthrough effects work, and lots of nuance, all of which make its most terrifying elements — like, say, that crucifix scene — more palatable to general audiences. It was groundbreaking in all the right ways, and for 50 years, has possessed an entire genre.
/Film – ‘Slash Film: The 13 Best Movies About The Devil Ranked’
Author: Chad Collins
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September 11, 2021