One reason the genre is so stunted is because the book that started it all casts a long shadow. William Peter Blatty is a true believer and he isn’t phoning it in here. To him, writing this book was a matter of life or death and it still holds up today. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is pretty much one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Let’s pretend The Exorcist II never happened and that at no point in his career did James Earl Jones dress up like a giant bug. But that still leaves us with The Exorcist III which is one of the most innovative possession movies ever made. From statues of Jesus weeping blood, to dead children loitering on dark city streets, to heads being lopped off with garden shears, this is a loopy, lurid, totally original flick.
God bless Ken Russell. Maybe the finest nunsploitation movie ever made, The Devils is stuffed with a ton of talent to tell its tale of a convent in 17th century France descending into religious hysteria. With Oliver Reed strapped into a loincloth and tortured, teenaged nuns writhing in sexual (and demonic) ecstasy, and Vanessa Redgrave masturbating with a dead man’s charred femur, there are few movies that go this far over the top and then keep on going.
Paul Tremblay has probably written one of the only modern possession novels destined to be read for years to come. In his account of two teenaged sisters and the reality TV crew that invades their life to film the older sister’s exorcism, he’s written a book that has its fair share of creepy moments, but what really lingers are the little cruelties inflicted by one sister on the other.
Isabell Adjani is cheating on Sam Neill with her demon lover and he doesn’t like that one bit. Even worse, she’s about to give birth to an octopus. It’s as demented as it sounds, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but while it’s running, this surrealist horror show follows its own laws and exists in its own crazed world.
Loosely based on the real life story of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who died after 10 months of non-stop exorcisms, this locked-down German arthouse flick is a quiet, emotionally honest, step-by-step account of how a normal teenager from a sheltered background wound up allowing herself to be tortured to death. As you watch, her road to self-destruction comes to make some strange kind of sense.
Sara Gran’s first person account of a demonic possession is a stripped-down, minimalist nightmare of a novel. There’s no religion to be found here, just a young woman terrified that she’s losing her mind, having her personality erased piece by piece, and replaced by something that delights in pain and misery. Almost too bleak for its own good.
If you’re going to read one book about exorcisms, make it Michael Cuneo’s non-fiction history of exorcism and possession in which he attends close to 50 exorcisms himself and discovers that the ritual is alive and well in the world today. And that exorcisms are also much more normal, and simultaneously much stranger, than one would expect.
Art films and sociological studies of exorcisms are all well and good but sometimes you just want to see a ludicrous Indonesian horror movie where an eel swims up an archeologist’s vagina causing her to become possessed by an ancient demon queen who picks up machine guns, dresses in black leather, and exterminates men by shooting them in the balls. This movie scratches that itch pretty much perfectly.