These Demon Possession Classics Examine the Best and Worst of Humanity
Ready for a deep dive into horror? Each week, acclaimed director, writer and producer Eli Roth compiles a curated list of films that best exemplify horror's various sub-genres. Whether you're a new horror fan or a die-hard expert, "Eli Roth's Deep Cuts" has a recommendation ready for you.
The fear that demons will enter our bodies and make us do terrible things has inspired some of the most frightening films ever made, from The Exorcist and The Omen and Rosemary's Baby to the recent hit Get Out. Check out these other worthy additions to the "Possession" genre, which examine how the demons in our homes and in our hearts can bring out the best and worst of humanity.
Then, watch the latest episode of Eli Roth's History of Horror to see Linda Blair, Jordan Peele, Diablo Cody and more explore the impact of the most iconic possession movies in cinema.
Repulsion (1965, dir. Roman Polanski)
Repulsion puts the viewer inside the mind of a psychologically tortured woman, likely suffering from PTSD after childhood abuse. Catherine Deneuve gives one of the great horror performances as Carol, who becomes possessed by hallucinations that she's being raped and assaulted. Polanski uses amazing camera and set design tricks to demonstrate how her apartment continuously changes as Carol's personality disintegrates, becoming a haunted hell house where groping arms and hands literally come out of the walls to attack her. When predatory men come to the apartment to see (and possibly take advantage of) her, she is ready for them, with a straight razor.
The Brood (1979, dir. David Cronenberg)
Nola participates in experimental psychological treatments masterminded by Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Raglan makes patients manifest trauma-inspired anger physically on their bodies, often as grotesque tumors. When evil dwarves begin murdering people Nola doesn’t like, her ex-husband begins to suspect that it has some connection to her work with Raglan. If Nola’s rage turns against him and their young daughter, what will happen?! David Cronenberg wrote this after a nasty divorce, and has described it as his Kramer vs. Kramer.
Possession (1981, dir. Andrzej Zulawski)
One of the most insane, disturbing, beautiful horror movies ever made. Anna asks her husband Mark for a divorce, and they both begin to act increasingly enraged and erratic (leaving their poor son to suffer). Mark suspects that Anna’s been unfaithful and investigates, which leads him to a discovery that's too strange, transgressive, and awesome for us to spoil here. Zulawski has said that he took Anna and Mark's blisteringly angry dialogue and behavior (fiercely delivered by Isabel Adjani and Sam Neill) directly from exchanges with his wife during his own divorce. The film is difficult to describe but will leave a lasting impression on you.
The Entity (1982, dir. Sidney J. Furie)
Barbara Hershey plays a single mother who is repeatedly sexually assaulted by a violent ghost. When a psychologist fails to stop the stalking, she turns to parapsychologists. Issues of domestic violence began getting increased press in the 1970s and 1980s. Hollywood's effort to grapple with such issues via the supernatural horror genre was very controversial, and remains disturbing and complicated. This film would make an interesting, although perhaps punishing, double feature with The Shining (1980).
Demons (1985, dir. Lamberto Bava)
A motley crew of punks, preps and other types get the surprise of their lives when the midnight movie they're watching turns audience members into murderous demons. Will anyone make it out of the theater alive? Great cinematography, makeup effects, and music distinguish this fun demonic romp.
Hellraiser (1987, dir. Clive Barker)
Julia and Larry return to his family house in London, previously occupied by his sexually adventurous bad boy brother, the recently-deceased Frank. Larry doesn't know that Frank had a passionate affair with Julia, and she is thrilled when the blood spilled from a cut on Larry's hand resurrects Frank in gooey, partially skeletal form. Frank tells Julia that she must get him more flesh and blood from murdered men so that he can be human again and they can be together. But Frank has an even bigger problem: he’s being hunted Pinhead and the Cenobites, the BDSM-loving demons from whom he's escaped. Clive Barker's directorial debut (based on his book) is complicated, and visionary.
Night of the Demons (1988, dir. Kevin Tenney)
Goth girl Angela invites her friends to a wild party at a funeral home. During a séance, a group of them get possessed by demons and murder the rest. It's like The Evil Dead, but sillier, more '80s, and featuring a crazy, sexy demonic dance sequence set to the Bauhaus classic “Stigmata Martyr.”
The Exorcist III (1990, dir. William Peter Blatty)
Some consider this to be one of the best horror movie sequels. It's much less flashy than the original, but has a brooding, eerie power of its own. Lieutenant Kinderman (the detective in the first film) investigates a series of grotesque murders that the deceased Gemini Murderer seems to have committed. He discovers that the killer might have possessed Father Karras from the first film (returning Jason Miller). A sequence involving a hallway and some sheets traumatized audiences everywhere.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005, dir. Scott Derrickson)
A throwback to classy 1970s supernatural thrillers like The Exorcist and Audrey Rose, allegedly based on a true story. Father Moore is on trial for the murder of Emily Rose, who died during his exorcism of her. The defense argues that she was possessed and that medication prescribed by psychiatrists interfered and led to her death. The prosecution says that she had epilepsy and the exorcism exacerbated it. The church just wants to keep things quiet. The film goes back and forth between the trial and flashbacks to Emily Rose's horrific experiences. A-list stars (and great actors!) like Tom Wilkinson, Laura Linney, and Campbell Scott lend gravitas to the proceedings.
The Last Exorcism (2010, dir. Daniel Stamm)
A minister specializes in fake exorcisms because he thinks that they help people who believe in them. Several documentary filmmakers make a movie about him questioning his faith. During filming, he is asked to perform one last exorcism on a particularly dire case. Will it change his mind about the reality of demonic possession? The film's found footage cinematography adds a layer of unsettling veracity to its exorcism scenes.
Sinister (2012, dir. Scott Derrickson)
Ethan Hawke plays a struggling true crime writer who moves his family into a house where the multiple murder profiled in his current book project took place (the killer was never caught). He finds Super 8 films in his attic that graphically depict murders, including those of the house's previous tenants. As he watches the films, bad things happen to his family and his kids. Could a demonic force be living on the film? Stylishly directed by Scott Derrickson, with a bone-chilling score by Christopher Young.
The Conjuring (2013, dir. James Wan)
A 1970s-set haunted house-turned-possession film based on the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the demonologists who helped the Lutz family when they lived in the Amityville Horror house. Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston play loving parents who move their kids into a big, creaky farmhouse in Rhode Island, and are taunted by a supernatural presence. Ed and Lorraine help them discover the house is steeped in a Satanic haunting that will attach itself to the family even if they leave. The movie combines a charming 1970s feel with a chilling modern style (particularly Joseph Bishara's score). Some elements of the film are perhaps overly reminiscent of Insidious, but it's still a scary, sometimes moving blast. The actors are perfect across the board, and it's no surprise that Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson were lovable and kickass enough to get their own franchise as the Warrens.
The Babadook (2014, dir. Jennifer Kent)
A widow and her son are terrorized by a demon who comes to life out of a picture book. This movie will likely push the most vulnerable buttons of everybody who has ever been a child, a parent, or a spouse—meaning, everybody. By honing in on and exaggerating everyday fears, Kent has made a movie that's terrifying, disturbing, and tragic. The Babadook is part of a series of semi-experimental, moody independent horror films that succeeded with critics and (many) audiences in the 2000s, which also includes The Witch and Hereditary.
Hereditary (2018, dir. Ari Aster)
A family mourning the death of their mysterious grandmother totally falls apart after tragedy strikes again. Mother Annie (the great Toni Collette) thinks that she may be able to put the pieces back together by invoking the supernatural, which thrusts everybody into an insane nightmare. Hereditary has an extraordinary cast, distinctive and haunting cinematography, communicative art direction, and a director who ratchets up the intensity with great effectiveness. Its big horror set pieces may leave some audiences yearning for the films that inspired it, like Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, and The Other.
Click here to see all of Eli Roth's Deep cuts.
Eli Roth's History of Horror airs Sundays Late Night. Want even more exclusives delivered directly to you? Sign up for the Eli Roth's History of Horror Insiders Club.