As Halloween approaches, every horror fan is looking for a fresh experience. With so many subgenres — found footage, creature features, slashers — the mash-up of choices may be flooding streaming platforms, but among the greats is the almighty exorcism movie.
Over the years, this subgenre has risen to unprecedented heights, leaving not rusting piles of screws lathered in bloodbaths as seen in body horror, but broken crucifixes mixed with bile and holy water. In the world of cinema, the possessed generally appear the same: heads twisting, faces grimacing with agony, mouths hissing with steam, bodies contorting, and bones rattling to the core as the victim battles an evil, intrusive force — all the while feeding pure entertainment to the viewer.
Brave enough for some frights? Here are our picks for the 20 best exorcism-themed movies, from modern chillers to an all-time classic.
<i>The Exorcism of God</i> (2021)
The Vatican treats him like a king, the parishioners worship his presence, but Father Peter Williams (Will Beinbrink) has been hiding an unspeakable secret for 18 years. Desperate to bury the memory of an exorcism gone awry, the guilt-ridden priest dives into humanitarian work at a small Mexican village. But the past not only comes back to haunt him, it barrels into the present like a barbaric trainwreck packed with possessed prisoners and disease spreading to the townspeople. Although Venezuelan director/co-writer Alejandro Hidalgo (The House At The End Of Time) treads all-too-familiar territory — mainly ripping off The Exorcist — he succeeds on a human level by showing Will's inner brawl with the Devil.
<i>The Devil Inside</i> (2012)
20 years ago, Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley) killed three clergymen during an attempted exorcism one fateful night. Now locked in an Italian asylum, her daughter (Fernanda Andrade) pays a visit to unmask the truth. Is she insane… or is she truly demonically possessed? As it turns out, four demons have been racking her soul, and two exorcists (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth) are determined to get them out.
A documentary-style thrill-ride full of vicious attacks, seizures, and crosses carved on arms and lips, director William Brent Bell (Orphan: First Kill) proves low-budget filmmaking is often an advantage (The Devil Inside grossed over $101 million on a $1 million budget).
<i>This is the End</i> (2013)
Not in our wildest nightmares did we think a cast of all-star actors — James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Seth Rogen — would band together in a funny, apocalyptic-themed scarefest while playing exaggerated versions of themselves. Beyond comedy, disturbing sequences of horror and gore streak through co-writers/directors Rogan and Evan Goldberg's creative endeavor, including an exorcism scene involving Hill that's a straight-up homage to The Exorcist. The possessed actor's eyes glow green, his voice growling as he thrashes on the rattling bed with Jay Baruchel holding a cross high in the air. And, to top it off, the fiendish parody generally received positive reviews — ours included.
<i>Deliver Us from Evil</i> (2014)
Deliver Us from Evil abandons the churches with possessed nuns and foggy graveyards and instead moves into the heart of the Bronx. At first, the events are grim, but nothing out of the ordinary; a baby dies in an alleyway, and a former soldier beats his wife. But when a mother throws her toddler into a moat surrounding an enclosure full of prowling lions at the zoo, puzzle pieces come together like a satanic symbol. It's then up to an NYPD officer-turned-demonologist Ralph (Eric Bana) to team up with an unconventional Spanish priest (Édgar Ramírez) to stop the demonic plague that's swarming through the city. The resulting storyline explores unconventional exorcism and pagan theology in frightening terms — plus The Doors are rocking on the soundtrack.
<i>The Cleansing Hour</i> (2019)
For most of us, a general image of what an exorcism looks like is seared into our minds. An average everyday person — Jane or John Doe — is dragged from society by the menacing hands of the Devil, shaking alongside a disgruntled, out-of-retirement priest fighting a supernatural entity. But The Cleansing Hour takes that image and tosses it out the window.
Centered around a staged exorcism webcast hosted by "Father" Max (Ryan Guzman) and best friend Drew (Kyle Gallner), reality vanishes after Drew's fiancée (Alix Angelis) steps up to be the next "possessed" guest. The show then unravels like a circus, hopping with rabid animals when real demons from the underworld steal the show, feeding off the rising livestream viewer count. With 17 million watching, the audience, too, becomes possessed — including the president of the United States — providing unpredictable entertainment that morphs into evil when a supposedly harmless, fake exorcism turns all too real.
<i>The Possession</i> (2012)
When we think we've visited the coldest cellar of psychological trepidation, director Ole Bornedal (with producer Sam Raimi) picks up a rotary hammer and drills us down to freezing depths with The Possession. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (of Walking Dead barbed wire baseball bat-wielding glory) plays a basketball coach left raising his daughters (Natasha Calis and Madison Davenport) after a bitter divorce. As many horror fables go, they move into a new home on supernatural turf.
The evil entity: Abyzou, Hebrew for "Taker of Children." In a classic bait-and-switch, just when they think the demon is gone, Abyzou resurrects in unlikely locations such as a hospital. Wind howls as Calis' body rocks on a gurney, her family lighting candles as a rabbi screams scripture with water crashing in a nearby tub. Though all of this is standard fare for the genre, it's the execution that counts, and the screenplay being based on the supposedly haunted dybbuk box doesn't hurt, either.
<i>The Conjuring 2</i> (2016)
James Wan's follow-up to the original Conjuring sees Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprising their roles as the paranormal investigating power couple. While not entirely up to par with its predessesor, its incorporation of the Amityville house murders, Joseph Bishara's haunting musical score, and Wan's hyper-frenzied direction should still leave most Conjuring fans satisfied.
The Conjuring 2 is filled with sudden jolts, dog bells signaling danger, self-moving fire engine toys, and the infamous Crooked Man — all shot with cinematic tricks borrowed from '70s-era filmmaking. As a grand finale, the last exorcism rips and roars with rain, broken shower curtain rods, flashes of lighting, and an overturned tree under the window where Wilson's life hangs in the balance. Terrifying and compelling, Wan proves once again he's a puppet master of the genre.
At first considered an unfortunate Keanu Reeves blunder, as time passed — perhaps with the resurgence of Reeves' slam-bang action hero roles in the John Wick franchise — Constantine is now something of a cult classic. What's more, fans are begging for a sequel, which is now in development. John Constantine (Reeves) is a demonologist, starring alongside Rachel Weisz who sends demons straight to Hell and contends with Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) and Lucifer (Peter Stormare) in the process.
The summoning of evil is ten-fold here. For example, there's an exorcism where John stands over a possessed girl (Jhoanna Trias) to cast out a "soldier demon," pressing a cross bathed in sunlight into her forehead. He pushes down, her flesh burning as several men hold a mirror above the bed. In the reflection, a devilish Gollum-like creature thrashes and hisses like a snake. Loosely based on DC Comics' Hellblazer, images and dialogue spring with animation off the '80s pulp pages, unleashing both demons and Constantine fandom in the same whirlwind of horror-fantasyland.
<i>The Last Exorcism</i> (2010)
The Last Exorcism's first half utilizes single-camera coverage, and escalates to multi-camera as the fear temperature rises to a boil. Patrick Fabian stars as Cotton Marcus, a cynical reverend (and self-described demonic-casting conman) with a faith crisis in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When he receives a letter from a farmer (Louis Herthum), "Devil," "daughter," and "livestock" jump off the paper. In other words: the farmer's possessed daughter is slaughtering his farm animals. Cotton then springs into action as a documentary crew captures his last exorcism in crazed found footage style. The result is a more intimate glimpse into the exorcism genre, putting the viewer right in the room with the fearful action.
"Be gone, seducer. Your place is in solitude. Your abode is in the nest of serpents. Get down and crawl with them."
So says the priest to Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland), who writhes in a dark room, foaming at the mouth before a gathering of fellow Carmelite nuns. Unfolding like a tragedy in the aftermath of diabolical events makes Agnes that much more of an effective horror story. As a prelude, that exorcism haunts the rest of the film when Agnes leaves the church to live a normal life — or so she thinks.
The demons transform into trauma, operating between flashbacks of the Santa Teresa covenant with bloody faces and slamming doors to the grocery store where Agnes works in the present. Director Mickey Reece (Country Gold) seamlessly — and cleverly — blends horror and drama through a film that brims with looming threats, a crisis of faith, and unanswered prayers.
<i>The Exorcist III</i> (1990)
A hidden gem overshadowed by the legacy of the original, William Peter Blatty steps up to direct this third installment. Blatty, who wrote the book and screenplay for The Exorcist, is responsible for the entire franchise. He wisely sets the story 17 years later, ignores the events of Exorcist II: The Heretic, and makes this the final installment (after The Ninth Configuration) in the so-called "Faith Trilogy"— his reference to the true Exorcist trilogy.
Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) sees parallels between a current murder investigation and the "Gemini Killer" executed 15 years earlier, with a hospital panicing as bodies drop like flies on every floor. Setting The Exorcist aside, horror fanatics have considered III's qualities without writing a list of comparisons to the original. Its many nail-biting scenes — the empty hallway where a nurse is killed on her night shift, the "It's A Wonderful Life" message scrawled in blood, and Father Karras (Jason Miller) reprising his role in a cameo, strapped in a straight jacket inside a padded room — are petrifying, to say the least. As number three in a long-running franchise, people often forget how The Exorcist III is a good movie in its own right.
<i>The Devil's Doorway</i> (2018)
Two Irish Catholic priests, Father Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Father Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) visit the nun-established Magdalene Asylum to investigate a Virgin Mary statue bleeding from the eyes in the chapel. Father Thornton records the entire process as part of his work for the Vatican, which gets scarier by the minute; hands blaze with fire, children's voices sing in cellars, evil nuns run about, and flashlights reveal satanic images in the dark.
When Father Riley attempts to cleanse the demonized Kathy's (Lauren Coe), he asks: "Do you remember the statues upstairs?" to which she responds, "I love the statues, Father…the Blessed Virgin especially." The writers mold a peculiar premise in their screenplay by avoiding another dime-a-dozen found footage freakshow, instead turning a very careful eye towards the real-life atrocities committed by the church — plus some genuine scares.
<i>The Rite</i> (2011)
Like blood is the hallmark of a slasher, shrieks echoing through church corridors puts the stamp on the standard exorcism film. That's spot-on here, with Anthony Hopkins' intense performance as a Welsh Jesuit exorcist. Based on Matt Baglio's The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, the story follows an American seminary student (Colin O'Donoghue) in Italy, where he learns from the very best.
Merciless, vile, and downright sadistic, The Rite delivers stunning entertainment that strays away from depending on shadows and eerie atmospheres. Hopkins' performance is wide-ranging, swinging the pendulum from eccentric clergyman to a full-fledged, demented madman. Fun fact: Director Mikael Håfström attended real exorcisms in preparation for making the film.
<i>The Exorcism of Emily Rose</i> (2005)
In the fall of 2005 — when eyes started rolling at the mere mention of exorcism-themed films — The Exorcism of Emily Rose roared out from the fiery pits of Hell and scorched theater seats to a charred crisp. 17 years later, the smoke still lingers.
A supernatural horror story and courtroom drama rolled into one, and with a stellar cast, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a spinning Roledex of contradictions. An attorney (Laura Linney) defends a priest (Tom Wilkinson) who performed an exorcism on college student Emily (Jennifer Carpenter), which resulted in her death. The negligible homicide case is seen through the strongest of microscopes, bringing flashbacks of the backstory into sharp focus as questions about faith and the human psyche soon arise. Some characters are believers, others are not — such as Linney's character, an atheist supporting the ultimate believer. Meanwhile, Carpenter plays Emily in a persuasive, snarling manner that's both chilling and heartbreaking — and the farmhouse in the middle of nowhere serves as the ultimate crime scene.
<i>The Medium</i> (2021)
In the Isan region of Thailand, an ancestral spirit named Ba Yan has been worshiped by villagers for generations. When a documentary team arrives to film Nim's day-in-the-life as a medium possessed by enlightenment — also preparing to document Nim's sister, who's next in line for succession — everyone soon realizes the family is damned by a far more sinister spirit.
God has no mercy in Banjong Pisanthanakun's brutal, astonishingly insightful film, unveiling the root of evil through a realistic view of exorcisms — and becoming one of the highest-grossing Korean horror films of all time. Dark and elegant, growing more frightening as the plot thickens, The Medium surpasses all expectations of a Tai-South Korean mockumentary supernatural horror film.
<i>The Conjuring</i> (2013)
Just when Hollywood seemed to exorcize itself with a tidal wave of bad-to-mediocre horror studio productions, James Wan's startlingly scary The Conjuring spawned a $2.1 billion-grossing Conjuring universe and seven sequels, prequels, and spin-offs with more in the pipeline. Through the talented eyes of cinematographer John R. Leonetti (Mortal Kombat), scenes spill with dread behind controlled camera movements, brandishing high-quality filmmaking dressed in an expensive ten-piece suit.
Though conventional in its concept (family moves into house, spirits possess family, paranormal investigators exorcize spirits) the film's significance comes from its execution, which electrified audiences with ominous clapping hands and an expert control of tension. From this, the franchise piles on more films (like the Annabelle series, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llorona), weaving together multiple themes and mysterious storylines, though few were as effective as this first film.
<i>The Witch</i> (2015)
With a spotlight shining on realistic performances and meticulous craftsmanship, The Witch is something of a cult classic on steroids. Robert Eggers' first feature — he's since helmed stylized art-house films The Lighthouse and The Northman, with a Nosferatu remake in the works — tells a tale of folk horror in 1630s New England.
The story follows a devout family, led by father William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), living on an isolated farm after their expulsion from Puritan society. Now, a sinister witch (Sarah Stephens) who bathes her broomstick in the woods tortures their existence, abducting their infant and leaving the family in shambles. Soon each member of the family is targeted by evil forces, none testing their fate more so than their living son Caleb's unusual illness. In a memorable moment, the possessed Caleb lies on the bed, arching his back, coughing up an apple, and dying before his family's eyes. Soon after, the young twins claim eldest sister Thomasin (an excellent debut for Anya Taylor-Joy) is the witch.
Unlike horror movies built on shadowy boogeyman bouncing out of the dark, The Witch's tone stays quiet — swarming around themes of bewitchery, black magic, and wickedness without overdoing it — all while showcasing superb performances in one of the bleakest family dramas put to film.
Hans-Christian Schmid's Requiem, both touching and horrifying, is a delicate study of two strong and equally real possibilities: demonic possession and mental illness. Its intensity originates from the real versus imagined — the sickness of the human mind versus demonic forces at work — capturing that slow-building, foreboding sense of doom many lesser horror films neglect for cheap jump scares and shock value.
Sandra Hüller plays the epileptic Anneliese Michel, a German woman believed to be possessed by multiple demons before her tragic death in 1976. What makes it even better is it's a true story (okay, probably not) but it still serves as the basis for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes, although taking it up five notches here.
<i>The Wailing</i> (2016)
Among the more recent (and most delirious) great exorcism films is writer-director Na Hong-jin's The Wailing — an involving, South Korean prestige horror flick with a level of thematic depth and atmospheric dread that remains one of the best of the decade. The plot: possessed residents committing violent murders in the village of Gokseong, with Kwak Do-won as a police officer and Hwang Jung-min as a shaman tasked with protecting the village.
Instead of another room with a priest and young woman growling on the bed, the exorcisms in The Wailing are accompanied by chanting crowds, fire pits, and drums beating as a great spectacle is made of the ritual. Its quality isn't the horror itself but the ghoulish environment and subtle danger that lies beneath, being a who-dun-it occult film that never lets up, keeping us guessing on the true nature of the terrors up until the bitter end.
<i>The Exorcist</i> (1973)
The golden precedent to the afore-mentioned films, The Exorcist is an exhilarating, vomit-spewing, bed-shaking masterpiece that shocked worldwide audiences as crowds literally had seizures in the theater. William Friedkin's long-beloved masterpiece — assisted by William Peter Blatty's writing, Owen Roizman's cinematography, powerful performances by Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Linda Blair as the demon-possessed Regan — remains unsurpassed all these years.
After half a century, followed by countless ripoffs and recycled material, the thrill of a young girl's mysterious shift in behavior, a mother's desperation, and a priest's unresolved grief still vibrates with alarming intensity. The film leaps beyond being just scary, becoming an enthralling drama with characters we come to care about — a cinematic triumph exceeding all expectations during principal photography at CECO Studios in Manhattan.
The supernatural flair seen in trailers and TV spots isn't the most influential aspect; rather, it's the humanistic component as the desperate characters pursue scientific explanations before anything else. Their faith paradoxically lessens in the face of evil, even for Father Karras (Miller), trembling in disbelief and dwindling hope the more the demon Pazuzu reveals itself. When it does, that makes it all the more terrifying, fueled by first-rate lines: "What an excellent day for an exorcism," "I'm the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps," and, of course, "Your mother sucks c**ks in Hell." The Exorcist, no surprise, stabs the crucifix in the coffin, and is yet to budge as the greatest exorcism film of all time.