Thanks to The Exorcist, I think we all know what to do if one of our loved ones was to become possessed by an evil, otherworldly force. We get a Roman Catholic priest on the case (no other denomination will do), a bunch of holy water, some crosses, and an elaborate exorcism ritual. Demons hate that stuff. They're evil little critters, those demons, and they love turning our children into foul-mouthed, violent hellspawn, but you throw some holy water on them, and they get good and hurt.
Usually an exorcism is a one-on-one ritual, with one priest and one possessed. Well, sometimes two priests. But it's never a priest or two against an army of possessed weirdos. That, by the way, is the big twist in the upcoming January film The Devil Inside; not just one demon, but several possessing a single person all at once.
In the spirit of the demon possession (Happy Holidays!), I have compiled the following list of ten great demon and ghost possessions from movies. Some were scary, some were silly, and some were downright ridiculous, but it takes all kinds of demons to make an epidemic. Let's examine a few.
THE EXORCIST (1973)
Directed by: William Friedkin
I'll start with the most obvious, just to get it out of the way. The film that not only first brought up, but also codified the phenomenon of demon possession in the modern world, remains one of the scariest films ever made. It is slow and calculating, and it gradually becomes clear that this young girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), previously sweet and average, may actually be housing a random evil force claiming to the Devil himself. Fr. Damian Karras (Jason Miller) is on the case, though, and is closely examining what this girl may need, be it mere psychological help, medical attention, or a legitimate exorcism. Both the book on which it's based and the film seem to stress a great deal of doubt on the part of the nearly-lapsed priest. All of the head-twisting, spider walking, soup puking, changed voices, psychokinesis, and instant knowledge of Latin may actually all be explained through empirical research. We do eventually learn that a demon had a hand in all this, but the intense, quiet uncertainty leading up to it make the final revelation all the more spooky and devastating.
Directed by: Rupert Wainwright
Stigmata is actually one of a long string of largely disposable supernatural thrillers to have some out in the last 20 years, which included films like Bless the Child, Lost Souls, and The Rite. The story follows a priest (Gabriel Byrne) and his charge Frankie (Patricia Arquette) as they explore her mysterious bouts of stigmata, that is: spontaneously bleeding from her hands and feet, á la Christ. What could have been an earnest discussion of faith is reduced to a bland thriller wherein our heroine is increasingly beset by creepy, ghost-like visions and increasingly odd and uncontrolled behavior. I'm giving away the twist ending here, but it's one of the only interesting things about the film: It turns out that Frankie is not the one having the stigmata, but the ghost of an ancient monk who has possessed her. Yup. You thought it was a Messiah story, but it turns out to be a possession story. I appreciate that cute little narrative double-back. For a film that is largely forgettable otherwise, there was something fun about it.
A A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985)
Directed by: Jack Sholder
The weirdest of a plenty-weird horror franchise, the second Nightmare film is the one film in the series that doesn't resemble any of the others. The rules seemed pretty clearly set up in the first film: Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a murdered child-killer, has managed to supernaturally live on in the dreams of his own murderers’ children. When the teens sleep, Freddy appears to them, kills them in the dream, and they die in real life. It's a spooky concept, playing directly into our innate fear of nightmares. Six of the seven Nightmare films deal with this fear directly (with varying effectiveness). In the second film, though, the premise was changed. Freddy would still haunt the dreams of our main character Jesse (Mark Patton), but wouldn't kill him. Freddy, it turns out, was using Jesse as a conduit to the outer world, where he might be able to escape. Bit by bit, Freddy possesses Jesse, as demonstrated in a weird scene where Jesse licks his girlfriend's chest with a giant, grotesque monster tongue. Add to these scenes a healthy dose of outright homoeroticism, and you've got a legitimate camp classic. When we think of Freddy, we usually think of the dream demon. But it should be remembered that he was one a possess-y demon as well.
Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Fallen is a well-directed and oft-overlooked crime thriller about a scrupulous and honest cop named Hobbes (Denzel Washington) who finds that the killer he apprehended, and saw executed, is still stalking him. Through some mysterious investigation, Hobbes finds that his apprehended killer was actually possessed by a fallen angel (read: demon) named Azazel who loves tormenting people, and who can live inside most anyone. All Azazel has to do is touch you, and he hitches a free ride for as long as he wants. This is not the long drawn-out version of slow possession we're used to seeing. This one is instant demon-fill. Indeed, there's a really neat chase scene in the movie wherein our heroine bolts down the crowded street, and Azazel merely passes from one person to the next at just as quick a pace. That's a neat power. Add to this the fact that Azazel is an arrogant, trash-talking blowhard, and you've got a legitimate supervillain. I don't want to spoil the ending of this one, but the way Hobbes ends up tracking and trapping Azazel is really, really clever.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007)
Directed by: Oren Peli
This movie caused a stir when it was released back in 2007, and was so spooky it managed to net millions of dollars, legions of fans, and spawn two sequels (to date). Told from the point of view of the consumer-grade video cameras placed around the home, Paranormal Activity was a mockumentary about a young attractive couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) who seem to be followed around their house by an evil, ghost-like presence. The camera captures increasingly scary phenomenon from the simple slamming door, to outright spontaneous fires. As the film progresses, we also see that Katie starts sleepwalking, and evilly eyeballing Micah. Eventually, the couple comes to the conclusion that Katie is being primed for proper demon possession, and that it's been moving her around at night as its powers grow. Yep. Many people like to slag on the film for being slow-paced, or for, perhaps, not standing up upon repeat viewings. I saw the film in a theater, though, and it certainly gave me the frighteners. This insidious, life-like possession movie makes the everyday bumps in the night seem like monsters again. Happy nightmares, kids.
BEYOND THE DOOR (1974)
Directed by: Ovidio G. Assonitis and Robert Barrett
Beyond the Door is essentially an Italian rip-off version of The Exorcist mashed up with Rosemary's Baby. Neat idea, right? If you haven't yet been introduced to the gloriously schlocky and over-the-top lurid universe of Italian exploitation movies, then you're missing out on a huge sub-strata of the genre world. Italian films are cinematically gorgeous, always bizarre, and, without fail, make senseless leaps of storytelling logic that you register immediately. Beyond the Door follows a well-to-do white woman named Jessica (Juliet Mills) as she becomes pregnant. Most of these demon stories, thanks to The Exorcist, involve well-to-do white families. It's eventually revealed that she may be giving birth to the Antichrist. To compound the problem, she seems to have a kind of demonic soul writhing around inside of her as well. I was never really certain if the child's soul had possessed her from within or not, but I like to think that the Antichrist was quietly gestating inside Jessica when some jerkwad interloper demon interfered with Satan's plan, and decided to possess the mother at a really awkward moment. I'd love to see the conversation between Satan and the interloper demon once all was said and done. I imagine Satan giving a lot of outraged recrimination from behind his desk, and some shameful apologies from the demon, hoping not to get fired. The film is fun, even if it is sloppy and nonsensical.
CHILD’S PLAY (1988)
Directed by: Tom Holland
When we think of Chucky, we think of the killer doll, right? The detail that most people tend to forget is how the doll originally came to life. Chucky was originally Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), a serial killer nicknamed The Lakeshore Strangler. Over the course of the five Child's Play movies, we do get to know Chucky as the flip, gleeful, homicidal maniac that he was in his previous life, but we rarely see the voodoo hobby he once had which allowed him to live in the body of a child's toy. The central plot-driving conceit of all five of the films is Chucky's desperate need to leave the doll body, and to possess a young boy. Thanks to a magical voodoo amulet, and the knowledge of a string of magic words, Chucky can shunt his consciousness around. If they ever make a part six, I hope the filmmakers explore this ability better, and we'll get to see Chucky move around between bodies more freely. He's not a proper demon, but he is evil enough to constitute one. I'd be afraid of a demon who can switch bodies. Heck. Look at Fallen. Or, if you don't have the time, see Shocker.
Directed by: Kaneto Shindo
Quiet, moody and terrifying, Onibaba is one of those classy old foreign movies that you often hear frothing scholars and fans of The Criterion Collection talking about. It takes place in feudal Japan, and focuses on two women, a mother and a daughter (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) who have a sweet little scam going. When rogue samurai wander through their wheat field, they lure them into a nearby pit, where they fall to their deaths. They two women then strip the samurai of their armor, and sell it for food. Eventually this violent idyll will be interrupted by two men: one is a sexy lover for the young woman, the other is a… Well, he's a demon. He wears a demon mask, and claims to be a gentle-hearted samurai who is so handsome he must wear the mask to protect the women around him. Eventually the mother lures this samurai to his death, pries the mask from his scarred face, and puts it on herself. The mask, however, won't come off. The mask, it seems, fills her body with fear and rage. She becomes the demon, you see. Thanks to movies like The Mask and Lord of the Rings, we've seen haunted pieces of clothing and jewelry, but the mask in Onibaba seems to demonically possess its wearer. The film is scary, and the hope of exorcism is far in the back of your mind. This is just about how evil can take over.
TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)
Directed by: David Lynch
The story goes that Frank Silva was working as a stagehand on the Twin Peaks TV series. In one shot of a particular episode, Silva forgot to step out of the reflection in a mirror, and he was captured on film by accident. David Lynch liked this little gaffe so much, that it changed the course of the series. Lynch ended up casting Silva as a supernatural killer named Bob who would wander around Twin Peaks, occasionally possessing people and forcing them to give in to the basest of their desires. It's unclear who was in control when Bob possessed you, but he was clearly a demonic presence. He didn't look much like a demon, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, a long roadie's haircut, and skinny denim pants, but he still exuded menace. As we see in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the feature film prequel to the TV series, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) was the one who killed his daughter Laura. But it was Bob who was “forcing” him to do so. Twin Peaks was a soap opera on steroids, and it only makes a certain kind of sense that the incest and murder should be motivated by this cloud of longhaired evil possessing people. Another interesting question: If you can talk to both Leland Palmer and to Bob on separate occasions, whom do you arrest for Laura's death?