With the release this week of The Devil Inside, supernatural possession is back on the menu. The dramatic potential of exorcism is something that has intrigued many filmmakers over the years, with mixed results. We take a look at seven of the best.
Setting a high benchmark for supernatural horror, this is still the first exorcism film that springs to mind for many people, even those born long after its 1973 release. Based on William Peter Blatty's novel, itself based on the real life Forties case of a boy called Roland, it stars Linda Blair as a child possessed by a violent demon. Max von Sydow is the ageing expert called in to advise and Jason Miller is the priest doubting his faith who must face a terrible decision. The scene in which Blair's head appears to turn right round is famous for its stomach-turning effect on audiences. Several times rated the scariest film ever, this was also, in its time, one of the most successful. It has complex characters and strong acting and, though it may not develop at the pace horror fans expect today, it remains a must-see for anyone with an interest in the genre.
Another tale of a troubled priest and a heroine who wouldn't last long in charm school, Ken Russell's most successful take on Gothic horror is one of the few films that truly deserve to be called unique. It may have been superficially more shocking upon its release in 1971, but it still packs an unexpected punch and its striking visual imagery is something you'll never forget. Vanessa Redgrave is Sister Jeanne, the sexually frustrated nun who accuses Oliver Reed's fornicating priest of witchcraft, but it's Michael Gothard's appearance on behalf of the Inquisition that really causes chaos, with a public exorcism leading to mass hysteria, an orgy in the convent and the eventual destruction of the city. Underneath all this excess is shrewd criticism of the Church's own, accepted extremes. Banned for many years, it is now widely considered a classic.
One of the few really strong entries in the found footage genre, this film draws on director Daniel Stamm's observation that Biblical literalism makes believing in the reality of demonic possession inescapable. It's set in a backwoods American town where a documentary crew have followed a preacher (Patrick Fabian) who has been making his living out of faking exorcisms and wants to show them how it's done. This provides the opportunity to give the film a bit of depth by considering the horrible suffering caused by inappropriate exorcisms, but as the team investigate, they come to suspect that this case may be something more unusual. Ashley Bell gives a powerful and physically extraordinary performance as the troubled girl who may of may not be possessed, whilst Louis Herthum is alternately terrifying and heartbreaking as her father, and film's carefully crafted ambiguity does nothing to mitigate the fear factor.
So far, this article might seem rather one-sided. Beetlejuice provides a different perspective. When a recently deceased couple are troubled by unwanted newcomers in their home, they enlist the help of Michael Keaton's haunting specialist to try and exorcise the living. Keaton has a whale of a time as the gleefully grotesque spook, with nefarious designs of his own, and there's an early appearance from Winona Ryder as the sympathetic daughter of the new residents ("Most people fear the strange and unusual, but I am strange and unusual."). As for the exorcism, it has all the lurid glory you'd expect of a ritual working in the other direction. Beetlejuice helped Tim Burton make his name and although it's bit hit and miss it has a raw, anarchic energy he has rarely equalled since.
Between 1975 and 1976, real life German Catholic Anneliese Michel underwent 67 exorcism rites, with complications eventually leading to her death. This award-winning German film is one of three based on her story, though it presents fictional characters and events. Sandra Hüller plays the woman convinced she is possessed by demons, with her church members in agreement but doctors insisting the problem is epilepsy and mental illness. In contrast with other exorcism films, Requiem is very spare and plain, eschewing special effects in favour of psychological drama. It has a quiet intensity that gives it a distinctive kind of eeriness even as the mental health narratives comes to dominate.
Also based on the Anneliese Michel case, this film takes a very different approach. It's framed within a courtroom drama as the priest who conducted the victim's exorcism (Tom Wilkinson) is tried for causing her death, but the formal setting frames a series of lurid flashbacks that present Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) as being possessed by multiple demons. Though light on gore, the film pulls out all the stops when it comes to religiously-framed supernatural scares. The result is something of a cheesefest but it's certainly entertaining and competently delivered. It's also rare in taking a female point of view on the exorcism of a young woman, through Laura Linney as the defending attorney.
Not every exorcism belongs to the same mythology and The Two Towers is a potent reminder that the idea of demonic possession exists across a range of cultures (even if this one is fictional). Arriving in the stronghold of Rohan, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) finds its ruler, King Théoden, under the influence of the sinister Grima Wormtongue and acting as a conduit for evil wizard Saruman. Tricking the guards, Gandalf uses his magical staff to perform an exorcism and release the king. It's a simple but dramatic scene that reinforces the importance of magic in the story, even if it also works at a metaphorical level. Though make-up effects are used to convey the change in the released man, the film relies principally on Bernard Hill's acting to convey the change that has taken place.