The Devil and his retinue have been a part of horror cinema since there was a horror cinema to speak of. In fact, he featured in two short films by cinematic pioneer George Méliès, The House of the Devil (later used as a title for an enjoyable movie by Ti West) and The Devil in a Convent, which can lay claim to being the very first horror movies made. Much later, the filmic adaptations of both Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist helped cement the genre as not only a solid marketing category, but also as a good money maker. Since Méliès, Satan has appeared in all sorts of forms, from the campy to the terrifying to the heroic.
He actually makes important appearances in some of the movies I’ve put on other lists, their appearances there my attempt at not spoiling his importance to the plot. As I mentioned in my list of devilish novels, I think resorting to Satan and his demons is often a cop-out, a lazy way of ginning up some fear. Nothing irritates me quite so much as seeing an original supernatural villain in a novel relabeled “the Devil” in its cinematic adaptation. Still, there are some great, chilling, and even funny portrayals of the forces of Hell in horror movies. Here are some of my favorites.
Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957)
This chilling classic horror is based on the story “Casting the Runes” by the early twentieth century master of ghost stories, M. R. James. The movie begins with a Professor Harrington begging Julian Karswell to rescind a curse Karswell laid on him. See, Karswell is running a cult and Harrington was poking his nose into it. The occultist claims he can’t do much to withdraw this curse and sure enough, Harrington is soon attacked and killed by something in the forest. The rest of the film follows one of Harrington’s colleagues, John Holden, as he gets closer to both Karswell’s cultic secrets and the dead man’s niece. When Karswell places the same sort of curse on Holden, the man has to fight past his rational skepticism in order to save himself from supernatural destruction.
There is a creepiness to Holden’s situation that would prove fertile ground for future horror movies. A regular person coming to believe in a curse closing in around them is a template that Ringu and The Ring memorably updated. Director Tourneur was forced to include a shot of the monstrous force at the end of this film despite his wish to keep it entirely offscreen. That minor flaw aside, this is a great one and criminally under-watched.
I love this movie, love every batshit crazy moment of it, but it is certainly not for everyone. The characters yell almost every bit of dialogue at one another, the filming is frenetic and jarring, and the metaphysics of the movie are almost incomprehensible. It’s a bit as if David Lynch and David Cronenberg teamed up to make a movie about demonic possession. Plenty of people won’t be able to sit through its first, most “realistic” act, not to mention the nightmare that follows. But you are just never going to see its like again.
Sam Neill plays Mark, a spy who lives in West Berlin with his wife and small son. When he returns home from a long mission, his wife Anna tells him she wants a divorce. Is there someone else? Certainly: an extremely odd older man named Heinrich whom Mark soon confronts. But Anna has an even darker secret, and once we discover what she’s been up to, the film spins off from a loud domestic dispute into one of the weirdest situations you’ll see on film. Don’t expect pea soup spewing and the saving powers of Christ in this surreal movie. Don’t expect explanations either. Just go into it ready for a bizarre ride into a world of psychological disorder and inexplicable monstrosities.
Legendary Italian director Dario Argento co-wrote and produced this monster movie and Lamberto Bava, son of Mario Bava (who is arguably the inventor of the slasher film), directed it. A crowd of mostly young Germans are given tickets to a free showing of a new horror movie in a big movie theater. Once they’re there, they find the movie is about a bunch of teens digging up the body of the crackpot prophet Nostradamus. So far, so good. But then one of the audience members gets infected after an encounter with one of the props from the movie, and when she transforms into a hideous flesh-tearing demon, the audience finds they’ve been locked inside this suddenly horrific space. Pandemonium ensues.
Demons is not interested in making you think, nor is it concerned with niceties like depth of character or plot. Demons is just out to freak you the hell out. It is in some ways closer to being a zombie movie than a possession film per se, but these monsters aren’t shambling mumblers, nor do their transformations stop at rotting flesh. Lots of fun special effects, campy characters, and a steadily building sense of claustrophobia make this a great popcorn-munching fun time.
Author Clive Barker directed this movie based on his short novel, The Hellbound Heart. Here, a degenerate pleasure-seeker named Frank Cotton, in his search for ever-more varied and extreme sensations, discovers a puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration. Anyone who solves this puzzle summons beings from another dimension who promise to give them the ultimate pleasures possible. Unfortunately, said pleasures involve extreme torture and hideous body modifications. These beings, the Cenobites, aren’t simple demons which is something I love about this film. When Frank’s brother Larry, his wife Julia, and Larry’s daughter Kirsty move into his house, the remnants of Frank see a chance at resurrection. The Cenobites, though, aren’t about to let go of their prey.
Barker blends classic haunted house tropes with deviant sexuality and visuals straight out of a sadomasochistic wet dream in order to create this surprisingly potent film. It’s deeper than you’d think, another example of Barker’s interest in transcendence and the spiritual shining through such dark material. The first sequel to this movie is a great continuation of the story, but every movie in the series thereafter gets more and more pointless (with the possible exception of Hellraiser: Inferno) until the series collapses under its own weight. It is being remade as I write this: let’s hope this reboot does better at capturing Barker’s vision than the last eight movies in the franchise did.
The Prophecy (1995)
This is another horror movie whose reputation has been sullied by several inferior sequels. The original, though, is a fun time and manages to ring changes on two thousand year-old stories. Thomas Dagget is a former Catholic seminarian who is now a detective for the LAPD. After a violent encounter with men clearly possessing supernatural powers, Thomas discovers that the Bible has a missing chapter wherein a second angelic civil war is described, this one led by the wannabe heavenly usurper Gabriel, played with scene-chewing excellence by Christopher Walken. In order to win his war with God, Gabriel needs to secure the particularly evil soul of a man who has just died. Thomas sets off in an attempt to save both Heaven and Earth.
This movie is much more of an adventure movie than most of those on this list, leading its characters through different settings and various supernatural complications. Gabriel is essentially the Devil of the movie, cruel and arrogant, but when Lucifer makes an appearance, he proves to be a more interesting character than he’s usually portrayed. In fact, I’d have to say this movie’s Lucifer is one of my favorite cinematic versions of Satan. Anyways: a fun movie regardless of how silly the sequels got.
The Ninth Gate (1999)
This is an adaptation of the novel The Club Dumas, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, one that is somewhat faithful. The book mines literary veins opened by Umberto Eco more than it indulges in supernatural horror, but those aspects of horror that were there are brought out well in The Ninth Gate. The movie is about an American book dealer, Dean Corso, who is hired to find two of the extent three copies of a 17th century spell-book said to enable a magician to summon Satan and gain all sorts of powers. The problem is that Boris Balkan, the man hiring Corso, is convinced only one of the three has the correct spells. In his travels, Corso meets quirky booksellers, a fetching young traveler, and other occultists desperate to get hold of the method of opening the ninth gate.
The Club Dumas is a book-besotted novel, steeped in literary history and allusions, while this movie streamlines most of that material. What’s left is an entertaining mystery, one with just enough hints of the supernatural to secure it a place in the horror genre. As for a possible appearance by Lucifer, I will say no more because that is part of the fun, but this movie handles that figure in an original fashion, one that stuck with me.
Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
Rec is the first part of a tetralogy of movies about a highly infectious disease that may be supernatural in origin. This first movie is the tightest of the four and follows Ángela Vidal, a reporter who is tagging along with a Barcelonan fire-fighting crew one night when they are called to a disturbance in an apartment building. There, they find an old woman locked in her rooms who seems to have gone violently insane. Before the crew can leave the building, the military seals off the building, trapping them and several residents inside. This quarantine, the government claims, is necessary because of the presence of a vicious new strain of rabies, but those trapped inside soon come to suspect that this isn’t some simple virus.
Rec is a found footage film and an example of just what that technique can accomplish when used well. As for the film’s place on this list, those infected with this virus may seem more like zombies, but there’s worse underlying this pandemic. Rec was remade as Quarantine for American audiences scared of subtitles. That movie is pretty good in itself, with a fine performance of Angela by Jennifer Carpenter, but I recommend starting with the original as it feels more authentic somehow. Oh, and skip the trailers for both versions, as they spoil one of the key scenes in a ridiculous way. Like, who the hell puts these trailers together?
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Unfairly overlooked when it was originally released, this comedic-horror movie has seen a revival recently as viewers have come to appreciate its sly take on gender politics. Megan Fox plays the eponymous Jennifer Check, a popular cheerleader whose best friend is dweebish “Needy” Lesnicki. One night, Jennifer drags Needy to a rock show in a dive bar, intent on pulling her out of her shell. Instead, a tragedy strikes and the girls are separated. When Jennifer reappears at Needy’s house later that night, she is covered in blood and voracious. Unfortunately, Jennifer no longer seems able to process regular food. Even more unfortunately, she soon discovers a new source of sustenance, and Needy is left trying to understand what happened to her friend that night as well as forced to try to temper Jennifer’s newfound violence. This is a great little movie and I’m glad it is getting the appreciation it deserves in our post-Me Too culture.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Cotton Marcus is a faithless pastor, one who stopped believing in his God when personal tragedy struck him. Intent on exposing the lies behind religious ritual, Marcus now carries out fake exorcisms on people he knows are either lying or are suffering from mental illness. The movie begins as a pair of filmmakers follow him around, thus giving a pretext for the film’s found footage technique. When Marcus is called to attend to a young girl suspected of being possessed, he thinks this will be just one more sad hoax. And for a while, his assumptions seem justified, but then the girl, Nell, turns violent and all bets are off. I’m not that interested in exorcism stories generally, but this one plays with a lot of interesting ambiguity before reaching a disturbing climax. The sequel is pretty decent too.
A quick heads-up: this movie’s translated title is Terrified, not Terrifier. I only mention it because the latter is a gross and nihilistic slasher that’s become a popular movie somehow, and I’d hate for you to accidentally watch it when you could be watching this awesome movie instead. Terrified is set in an Argentinian suburb that is seeing a lot of disturbing activity. In one house, a woman hears voices planning to kill her. In another, a grieving mother gets an unexpected visit. How are these incidents related?
A cop and three paranormal investigators descend on this neighborhood, but even their combined acumen may not be enough to stop this evil force. Terrified is pretty terrifying, dropping horrible situations on the viewer with little to no warning, and maintaining a sense of mystery that makes the gore it does show all the more disturbing. Honestly, I’m not sure this movie should even be on this list, but there’s something evil at work in Buenos Aires and if its source isn’t a traditional devil, it is certainly demonic.