With The Last Exorcism possessing cinema screens this weekend, it may be a banner year for the forces of darkness.
But devils and demons are nothing new to film and TV. A fascination with the supernatural, and particularly its dark side, dates back to the earliest days of moving pictures. Murnau’s Faust and Nosferatu top a seemingly endless list of diabolical encounters. We would like to share with you some our favorite devilish deals, demonic possessions, and hellish mischief from the vaults.
Please allow us to introduce ourselves. We are Julia Rhodes, William Bibbiani, and Dan Fields. Call us The Critics, for we are many.
Fallen (1998, directed by Gregory Hoblit)
Well, here’s a puzzler.
What do you do about a killer? (Why, catch him.)
What do you do about a copycat killer? (Well, catch him too, if you can.)
What do you do about a soul that can jump from body to body at will, infecting each new host with the same murderous temperament?
This is the problem of detective John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) in Fallen. Following the execution of a really nasty killer he has brought to justice, Hobbes faces mounting evidence that the late criminal might be continuing his killing spree from beyond the grave.
Enter the fallen angel (that is to say, demon) Azazel, who utilizes the living bodies of humans and animals to carry out its dark designs of mayhem and murder. Washington must first accept the fact of supernatural evil and then learn to fight it before too many people die, or before the demon can convince enough people he’s crazy and so put a stop to his pursuit.
The demon is clever, and can transfer itself through touch from one host to the next. Don’t let this thing into a crowd, in other words, or you may never find it. Fighting a foe you can neither see nor track really boosts the challenge of the chase. And of course this is bound to happen, and makes for the film’s most memorable sequence. A fine supporting cast, including John Goodman and Donald Sutherland, round this one out. The hunt is on, human versus demon. Who will win?
Storm Of The Century (1999, directed by Craig R. Baxley)
This chilling miniseries is one of the only works Stephen King wrote directly for the screen rather than adapting from one of his novels or stories. The little Yankee community of Little Tall Island, Maine, is faced with a couple of very big problems. The first is a massive storm system that has temporarily cut the island off from the mainland and forced every one to hunker down in a communal storm shelter. The second is a menacing stranger named Linoge (Anagram! Anagram!) whose mission is dealing death, seemingly at random, in the community. The killings he commits and orchestrates are actually catalysts for revealing the skeletons in this community’s great big closet.
We quickly see that Linoge exercises some measure of supernatural control over the bad things he makes folks do. As neighbor turns against neighbor and anarchy threatens, the townsfolk begin piecing together exactly what the stranger wants from them, and who among them is to blame for his vengeful presence.
As the community threatens to collapse under mutual hostility and suspicion, a town meeting must be called. This final act of the drama would make a great stage play, a modern-day “Devil and Daniel Webster” in which the whole community, not just one man, is on trial at the risk of body and soul. Linoge states his case with the eloquence of a master demon, and puts a series of grave moral choices before the townsfolk. Can these former friends and neighbors, with so much dissent and enmity sown among them, agree on their collective fate in a devil’s deal?
The series does not feature many well-known actors, but the performances are solid enough to make this a gripping piece of work. As Linoge, Colm Feore is wonderfully hateful and sinister, reminiscent of Kevin Spacey’s smoldering maniac in Se7en. He is a demon ready to deal, but on his own terms. He aims to win, and whatever choices they make, his victims have plenty to lose.
High Plains Drifter (1973, directed by Clint Eastwood)
The diabolical element of this bizarre Western only becomes clear in the fullness of time. As a filmmaker, Clint Eastwood has demonstrated a fascination with the deep dark reaches of the human soul. However, his work seldom ventures into the supernatural to make a point about the private hells that people create for themselves… or have thrust upon them for their sins. Of the two that come to mind, this is the better and bleaker film (the other being the perfectly serviceable Pale Rider).
Warning – for the purpose of discussing the themes of this movie, a few important plot details, though by no means all of them, follow. If you have not seen the film and would prefer to before learning too much about it, please skip this entry, and let there be no hard feelings between us.
Initially, this film treads familiar spaghetti-western territory. A taciturn stranger rides into a rundown mining town for reasons known only to himself. He demonstrates a facility with deadly force and soon becomes a mercenary for the cowardly town leaders. Except unlike the Man With No Name, of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, this gunslinger seems to lack any sense of honor toward his fellow man. He does not bat an eye at extortion, bullying, and forcing his attentions on unwilling women. He harbors a secret grudge against these people, though none have seen him before. Driven by a recurring vision of a murder committed in a town not unlike this one, he proceeds to cave the little society in on itself by exposing dirty little secrets and setting the craven citizens at one another’s throats. All this in the name of defending them against attack by a roving band of outlaws.
The stranger’s protective measures begin to seem like deliberate punishment of the townsfolk for wicked things they may have done. In the end, his plan includes forcing the townsfolk to paint the town red – literally! – and rename it “Hell,” over which he presides as chief official. Is any of this getting through?
To be fair, the film retains a measure of ambiguity about the avenging stranger. Eastwood never grows horns or burns people with a handshake. Nor does anyone point an accusing finger and unmask him as the prince of darkness. However, as his actions seem prompted by a dying man’s curse of damnation upon the town, there seems little room for doubt. When asked for his name, he replies that the townsfolk already know it.
Pumpkinhead (1988, directed by Stan Winston)
Take the classic story of Faust and his deal with the devil. Update it to the present day, chicken-fry it, throw in some backwoods black sorcery, and put it in the hands of special effects legend Stan Winston. And mister, you got Pumpkinhead!
This is Winston’s debut as a director. Though he produced makeup and special effects for many of Hollywood’s best-loved pictures, he only made a few himself, and this is far and away his best. It also features character veteran Lance Henriksen in one of his few starring roles, as Ed Harley, a small-town working man driven to unwise communion with dark forces.
When some careless “city folk” accidentally cause the death of Harley’s young son, the grieving father goes to the local swamp-dwelling witch – anyone with city folk problems and no local Pet Sematary would do the same – to see what can be done. Resurrection is out of the question, so the next best thing is revenge. The witch summons a hulking demon, dubbed “Pumpkinhead” by local spook legends, to dispatch the offenders in a series of terrifying nighttime attacks.
Once face to face with the taint of evil, Harley finds it less satisfying than he expected. Regretting his blood guilt, he sets out to try stopping the demon’s vengeance. Of course, dealing with demons is never simple. His life and soul have been written into the deal as collateral, and further sacrfice will be necessary to put things right, if they ever can be.
This film is lots of fun and pretty darned scary, with a great monster and a little more substance to the story than its B-movie atmosphere might suggest. It spawned a number of sequels, ranging from kind of lame to unwatchable. However, the original installment still packs a real punch.
Night of the Demon, a.k.a. Curse of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1957)
Demonic movies don’t get much classier than Night of the Demon, a downright Hitchockian tale of suspense if ever there was one. It makes sense, since screenwriter Charles Bennett also penned such classic Alfred Hitchcock pictures as The 39 Steps, Sabotage and The Foreign Correspondent. The story is straightforward: Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews of The Best Years of Our Lives) arrives in England to disprove the beliefs of a demonic cult. In retaliation the cult places a curse on Holden, who still refuses to believe in magic despite the increasingly mountainous evidence to the contrary. Will Holden discover the truth in time to save his soul, or will he truly show the world that there’s no such thing as monsters?
Night of the Demon is a highly intelligent movie, which only occasionally translates to “stodgy” (something most of the genre films of the 1950’s fall victim to from time to time). In particular the filmmakers deserve credit for not demonizing their villains, which is pretty damned ironic if you think about it. The leader of the cult, Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis of Jason and the Argonauts) could have been portrayed as a sinister figure living in the shadows and leering menacingly, but instead comes across as a pretty nice guy. He has a pleasant-looking home in the country where he puts on a clown costume and performs magic to the delight of the local children. Karswell is a little ahead of his time as a villain, and his satanic religion to him is treated the same as Christianity to most other people: a vital part of his life, but not necessarily his only interest. He only kills to defend his beliefs from outsiders who would denigrate his faith, and even chooses a method of murder that gives his victims plenty of time to repent and save themselves.
As a suspense film, however, Night of the Demon excels in both the Hitchcockian and Lovecraftian moulds. The curse is the ultimate supernatural ticking clock (see Ringu, The Ring and Drag Me To Hell for other, excellent variations), but this film also depends on the audience being far, far ahead of the protagonist for the bulk of the narrative. Dr. Holden is a man of intellect whose beliefs are so rational that in real life we would believe them, based on both his arguments and his authority. But unfortunately this isn’t real life… it’s Night of the Demon. The audience knows that the supernatural is real, at least within this little world, and as a result the suspense derives not from us learning the truth, but from waiting for our hero to catch up. Since we know how difficult it is to change the way we perceive the world (remember They Live?), the result is overpoweringly effective. How quickly would you come around, if all your beliefs were steadily proven wrong? Would you suffer the curse of the demon?
The Exorcist III (dir. William Peter Blatty, 1990)
Everyone loves William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Not quite so much adoration gets heaped on The Exorcist III, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, who of course also wrote the original book and movie. There’s only one explanation for that: Not enough people have seen the film. The Exorcist III is a remarkable horror picture. Distinctive, funny, subtle and extremely terrifying. I may be forced to acknowledge that parts of this picture are tacked on (because they were), and I may even be forced to acknowledge that The Exorcist is a more well-rounded film. But I’ll be damned if The Exorcist III isn’t my favorite film in the franchise.
The Exorcist III takes place 15 years after the events of the first film (completely ignoring the second). Lieutenant William Kinderman (the great George C. Scott, replacing original actor Lee J. Cobb who died in 1976) and Father Dyer (Ed Flanders of Blatty’s other directorial effort The Ninth Configuration) attempt to console each other on the anniversary of the exorcism from the first film, which resulted in the death of their mutual friend Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). Kinderman is investigating a series of particularly brutal murders – decapitated priests, crucified children – but the evidence doesn’t add up. There seems to be no logical explanation for these crimes.
After Father Dyer is murdered in his hospital bed – his blood completely drained and sitting beside him in row after row of little plastic cups – Kinderman suspects that the murderer might be a patient, even though the only suspects are elderly catatonics. It’s only when he discovers a certain psychiatric patient, Father Damien Karras, that he learns the shocking truth: That for Karras’ part in the original exorcism, his body has itself been possessed by a serial killer who uses this holy man to perform truly unholy deeds. Karras is played by Jason Miller from the original film, but when he’s possessed by “The Gemini Killer” he is instead played by the always-wonderful Brad Dourif, who turns in a tour de force as a diabolical bastard for the ages.
The Exorcist III feels wrong somehow, like it shouldn’t be. The pacing is off, but never slow. The murders are always kept off camera, but always churn the stomach. The characters always have something unexpected on their minds: Kinderman is distracted by the fact that he has carp swimming in his bathtub, and one priest unexpectedly reveals that his favorite film is The Fly. And the film’s methodical style gives way to some of the biggest shock moments in horror history. If you find a shot going on way too long in The Exorcist III, you might as well spill your popcorn in advance. The actual exorcism part of The Exorcist III was tacked on by studio heads who didn’t want to disappoint the audience, and it shows, but most remarkable of all is that anyone could watch this film and find it disappointing. It’s a horror classic deserving of greater recognition.
Frailty (dir. Bill Paxton, 2001)
Frailty was an unexpected surprise for me. I went to the theater with no expectations whatsoever and ended up watching the greatest child-centric horror film since Night of the Hunter. The film stars Bill Paxton as “Dad” Meiks, a working class single father. His sons, Fenton and Adam (Matt O’Leary of Brick and Jeremy Sumpter of “Friday Night Lights”) are normal kids with normal problems until one night their Dad wakes them up suddenly from a peaceful slumber with great news: He’s just had a vision from God, and has been given an important job to do. The Meiks family is going to kill demons.
As with Night of the Demon, skepticism is at the heart of Frailty. Fenton is understandably concerned about his father’s behavior. What if your father went insane? What if your little brother believed him? What if your father started kidnapping strangers and dragging them out to the woodshed before chopping them to pieces right in front of you? Fenton is the voice of reason in Frailty, but what if there’s no reason to be had? What if God wanted you to kill? Would you? Could you?
There are a lot of “What ifs” in Frailty, but none of them should distract from the fact that what actually happens in the story is nerve-wracking cinema of the highest order. Bill Paxton directed this frightening film and unlike many actors-turned-directors he doesn’t just use the movie as an excuse for bravura performances. His own role is muted, yet always believable, and he exacts fine performances from his very young cast. But his direction is particularly noteworthy. His style is clever without being too distracting (he steals a pretty nifty cinematic device from John Sayles, but it works so who’s complaining?), and he weaves a crafty narrative without ever tipping his hand. The ending of Frailty struck some audience members as gimmicky, and maybe even a little cheap, but it makes sense within the context of screenwriter Brent Hanley’s story, and poses a particularly chilling “What if” to the audience just before the credits: What if all of life’s mysteries had an answer, but the truth was unacceptable?
Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, 1968)
Roman Polanski (whose fame—or perhaps infamy—has grown exponentially in the last decade with his very public and increasingly bizarre rape trial) made two films in the late ‘60s, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby that are some of the best atmospheric horror in film history. Rosemary’s Baby is based on a novel by Ira Levin (the same guy who brought you the story behind that other feminist-backlash-spookfest The Stepford Wives), and stars Mia Farrow and cinema verité director John Cassavetes.
Blissful young newlyweds Rosemary (Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes) move into The Bramford, an enormous old apartment building in New York City. As the movie progresses, Rosemary slowly realizes the building’s bad reputation—suicide, murder, all that good stuff—is well deserved, and the kindly if eccentric old couple next door aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. In fact, they head a coven of witches, and Guy sold his wife’s womb to the devil in exchange for a successful acting career. Spoiler (although I wonder, is there anyone who hasn’t seen this movie?): Rosemary gives birth to the devil’s baby, which results in a haunting, harrowing final scene.
Throughout her pregnancy, Rosemary becomes increasingly convinced of what’s happening to and around her—the witches, Guy’s complicity, her baby’s unnaturalness—while the audience begins to doubt her sanity. The movie is brilliant not because of its admittedly over-the-top plot, but rather its ability to make the audience uncertain. Farrow’s predilection for high-pitched hysteria, Krzysztof Komeda’s eerie score, and William Fraker’s dreamy, fisheyed cinematography are enough to make anyone feel a little crazy, and watching the movie you start to feel like Polanski might have just messed around in your brainpan. Just like the devil is prone to doing. According to legend, of course.
The Omen (dir. Richard Donner, 1976)
The same guy who brought you The Goonies and the Lethal Weapon movies also made a demon-child movie in the aftermath of second wave feminism, free love, and Jesus Freaks. As Jeffrey Victor writes in Western Folklore, “The blood ritual myth and similar subversion myths usually arise at times when a society is undergoing a deep cultural crisis of values, after a period of very rapid social change has caused much disorganization and widespread stress.” The sixties left everybody reeling, and a huge amount of crazy demon-child and cult hysteria movies hit theaters in the next few years…one of which was, of course, The Omen.
Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck, aging ever so gracefully by then) and lovely wife Katherine (Lee Remick) move to England with their young son Damien after Robert acquires the position of Ambassador. In one of the movie’s creepiest scenes, Damien’s nanny hangs herself at the child’s fifth birthday party, crying “It’s all for you, Damien!” as she plunges to her horrible death. As Damien ages, his parents begin to realize (as movie parents are prone to do) he is probably the antichrist. As in most other demon-and-devil movies, there’s a significant amount of doubt, of am-I-crazy flailing around by everyone around the child.
What makes The Omen a classic, one of those films that come immediately to mind when one thinks “the devil,” is its all-encompassing brand of horror. The film takes place in England, in America, and in Italy. Damien causes a rift in the world as we know it—everything that is natural rebels against his presence. The movie released on June 6, 1976 (and its godawful remake released on 6/6/2006) in honor of its supposition that 666 is the devil’s number. The name “Damien” has never been the same in the movie’s (and its sequels’) aftermath, such has the film infiltrated the American conscious. It’s an obvious choice on any list of devil-centric movies.
Angel Heart (dir. Alan Parker, 1987)
I wrote once before about Angel Heart, but I’ll do it again and again if necessary. The movie, which features a young and attractive Mickey Rourke, and a younger and more attractive Lisa Bonet, tells a voodoo-centric tale of deals with the devil. Robert De Niro plays Louis Cyphre (get it yet?), a severely spooky businessman with long pointed fingernails and an amiably terrifying voice. Charlotte Rampling joins the cast as a beautiful, heartless fortune teller.
Private eye Harry Angel (Rourke) gets a call from a lawyer for Louis Cyphre, asking Angel to track down a missing person. As Angel flounders around New York and New Orleans, digging deeper and deeper into the murder mystery and the South’s voodoo traditions, he uncovers answers about his own past and about his employer. Here’s a hint: if you sell your soul to the devil, the devil always comes to collect.
The devil has been played by a number of fantastic actors (including Al Pacino, Peter Stormare, Viggo Mortenson, Harvey Keitel, and Jack Nicholson–wouldn’t you take the chance if offered?) and De Niro is one of the best.