Demonic possession is one of the scariest subgenres horror has to offer. Those who love it are in for a treat with Lionsgate’s Prey for the Devil, releasing just in time for Halloween. It continues the long tradition of theological horror, weaving together good and evil, God and the Devil, squaring off for a showdown in the body of one unfortunate soul.
After a global rise in demonic possessions in Prey for the Devil, the Catholic Church opens a school to train a new army of priests in the Rite of Exorcism in a battle for the soul of humanity. However, it’s limited to male priests only, as nuns are forbidden from performing exorcisms. However, when the young nun Sister Ann shows a prodigious talent for exorcising demons, a professor agrees to train her in secret. Sister Ann soon finds herself in the battle for the soul of a young girl, but she quickly realizes the malevolent entity is more dangerous than she ever thought possible. Soon, Sister Ann is in danger of losing her own soul to Satan.
To celebrate Prey for the Devil and to gear up for its release, we thought we’d take a look at some other great demonic horror films. While this list is by no means extensive, we tried to offer a broad variety of movies, from indie to classics, and international to cult hits. Whether you want to watch them before seeing Prey for the Devil or after is up to you–just make sure you have a blanket and some holy water handy.
The Exorcist (1973)
While we tried to choose a wide variety of movies to put on this list, we’d be remiss to not kick it off with the paragon of demonic horror movies: The Exorcist. A predictable choice? Maybe. But that just goes to show how influential William Friedkin’s horror movie based on William Peter Blatty’s book was when it hit theaters in 1973. At the time of its release, it was a sensation, with multiple reports of audiences vomiting, fainting, and even suffering heart attacks while watching the movie.
While it may not trigger reactions quite so extreme these days, the terror it offers still holds up. It’s a simple story of a young girl, Regan, being possessed by demons, her desperate mother, and the priest who steps in to help. Most of the movie unfolds in one setting, Regan’s bedroom. But the simplicity of the setting and the limited main cast allows The Exorcist to drill down on the horrific events. While a little dated, the special effects still shock today – it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t find Regan’s infamous 360-degree head turn creepy. Likewise, the incredible sound effects involved in the possession scenes have not lost a bit of their disturbing and skin-crawling impact in half a century. Then and now, The Exorcist is a work of art that set the blueprint for an entire subgenre of horror.
Stigmata isn’t necessarily the best movie, and certainly not the best horror movie. In fact, it was critically panned when it was released in 1999, with Gabriel Byrne even being nominated for a Razzie Award for his turn as Father Andrew Kiernan that year. But it offers a really interesting twist on the typical possession tale while doing a solid job of underscoring the ways in which the Catholic Church can be complicit in cover-ups–no, not the kind you’re thinking. Blending the phenomenon of stigmata with the concept of possession, Stigmata‘s story isn’t always even, but it’s always thought-provoking. In Stigmata, one restless soul goes to extreme lengths to get the truth out to the world. Similar to Dan Brown’s work, it weaves in just enough historical fact with its focus on ancient, apocryphal texts, to get one thinking about just how much the Church has hidden over the years.
The Omen (1976)
The Exorcist may be the landmark demonic horror movie, but The Omen is arguably right up there in the number two spot. Directed by Richard Donner, The Omen was a far cry from the Superman movies he’d go on to helm. When their son dies in childbirth, the Thorns adopt a baby and bring him home. But devastating accidents and horrific deaths start happening around them, and they soon learn their son is, in fact, the prophesied Antichrist. Creepy kids are a staple of the horror genre, and few are as unsettling as Damien Thorn. The genius of The Omen is its restraint; rather than overt horror, it relies on psychological subtlety. The freaky occurrences could be mere unlucky accidents – or there could be a locus of evil instigating it all. Released during the unrest of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and political and social upheaval, The Omen resonated with audiences in a world that suddenly felt like it was being controlled by forces of chaos. That’s exactly why it still resonates today.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
This list wouldn’t be complete without including at least one cult horror film with a darkly comedic bent. Jennifer’s Body was written by the brilliant Diablo Cody and directed by the equally brilliant Karyn Kusama, and it finally gave Megan Fox an opportunity to show her sharp sense of humor. As a horror movie, it’s fun; as a comedy, it’s dark, and as a feminist revenge story, it’s brilliant. And on top of that, it’s actually a fairly incisive and insightful portrayal of what it can be like for girls in high school–whether hot and popular or a wallflower. It’s more than fair to say that when Jennifer’s Body was released, it was completely misunderstood, not the least of which because the legacy of the horror genre has more often than not made female characters objects rather than given them depth. In the years since, however, it’s been reappraised as a biting horror comedy that was ahead of its time.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Director Scott Derrickson might be better known for his work on Doctor Strange, Sinister, and most recently, The Black Phone, but the movie that put him on the map as a horror director was 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Loosely based on real events, the movie makes the interesting choice of focusing on the trial of the priest who performed the exorcism on Emily Rose that ended in her death. The exorcism itself is only shown in flashbacks. However, that’s probably for the best. The exorcism scenes are genuinely terrifying, as are the flashbacks leading up to it. Emily’s blacked-out eyes and grotesquely contorted limbs, as well as the conviction of the priest, create doubt as to whether or not she was really possessed or just suffered from a medical malady. The Exorcism of Emily Rose often gets lost in the shuffle, just missing the horror movie renaissance of the 2010s, but it’s a genuinely haunting watch that has Derrickson’s unmistakable philosophical stamp.
The Devil’s Candy (2015)
Bad things tend to happen when you mix a demon, a serial killer, and a family caught in the middle. Such is the case with 2015’s The Devil’s Candy, a gem of an indie horror that lingers. Ethan Embry centers it as struggling painter Jesse Hellman, who moves into an old house with his family, not knowing that it was previously inhabited by a murderer who was possessed by a demon. All too soon, Jesse starts to hear the same voices the killer Ray did, and his paintings take a dark turn. Interestingly, however, the slow-burn possession isn’t really the focus of the story, but how the Hellman family falls apart from the inside. Even without the demons, the ending is bloody and terrifying, and Pruitt Taylor Vince’s performance as Ray Smilie is chilling enough to stick with you long after the credits roll.
Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Japanese horror movie Noroi: The Curse is well-known among horror aficionados for a reason. Hollywood horror isn’t the only game out there; Japan has put out some terrifying tales for just as long. At the top of that pile is Noroi. Some may feel the found footage conceit is cliché by now, but when it’s done well, it can be incredibly scary–and Noroi is one of the movies to truly utilize it to its full advantage. The story is a bit sprawling, with a complex mythology, but intensely gripping as it weaves a tale of demonic possession and unsettling supernatural phenomena. The ending is genuinely horrifying, but the whole movie delivers scares worthy of a watch.