Contrary to popular belief, William Friedkin's 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist, hasn't completely cornered the market in religious-themed horror flicks. While Linda Blair's spider-walk and pea soup potty mouth have devastated audiences everywhere, there are plenty of horror cinema greats that have delivered us from evil and helped us embrace the end of days. As this Friday's release of the Paul Bettany vehicle Priest proves, filmmakers have long since had a fascination with holy horrors, apocalyptic entities, satanic stories and the more malign pages of the good book.
Here are ten religious-themed horror films (in no particular order) that explore more than gore, riffing off theological lore, to imbue their stark narratives with a sense of spiritual dissolution. Let us know your favorites below.
When a father of two young boys is visited by an angel of God, their small town lives are turned upside down when he forces them to help him carry out the Lord's dirty work. The angel delivers a never-ending list of names – demons that have been lurking about in human form and spreading their ill will across the neighboring Texas towns. The boys are left to figure out whether dad is a psychotic axe murderer, or has been graced with a divine gift from the heavens above. Actor Bill Paxton's directorial debut (he also does a fine job in the role of the father), Frailty, plays like a Southern Gothic tale of terror, harkening back to the days of old-fashioned frightfests, domestic dramas, and pulpy police procedurals. Ominous shadows, extreme low/high-angle shots, and an eerie detachedness that permeates the film's characters as loyalties are tested and broken, instill an overwhelmingly sad, but gutsy honesty throughout.
A two-person camera crew documents their travels with a couple of firemen for a late night TV show. When a call takes them to an apartment building to assist an elderly woman – who happens to be covered in blood and biting the hell out of people – things take a turn for the gory. A surprising discovery adds an interesting component into the mix, adding another element of mystery amongst the gripping action and great scares. If I seem vague, it's intentional. [REC] is best viewed like the people in front of the camera – who have no idea what's happening to them, so neither should you. The film is an outstanding example of what genuinely terrifying and well-made cinéma vérité horror is all about.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Neopagan cult in Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man live like Gods and Goddesses on a lush island off the coast of Scotland. They dance naked to groovy, perved-out folk songs, have orgies, and are uncommonly hospitable with island visitors. While this is all incredibly entertaining, there's an interesting undercurrent of subtle and not so subtle countercultural themes popping up throughout the film. Everything from gender roles, to Britain's socio-political-religious issues, and jabs at morality are explored. The Wicker Man is smartly executed, subversive, and features the incredible acting chops of people like genre great Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. The film's haunting finale will burn itself into your mind forever.
Michele Soavi's The Church was intended to be the third film in the Dèmoni (Demons) series, but the film doesn't rely so much on gore as it does on atmosphere, and the threat of an insidious evil that spreads slowly throughout the course of the film. The backstory surrounds a group of Teutonic Knights who violently destroy an entire village – believed to be a breeding ground for witches – and bury the populace's remains in a mass grave. The crusaders build a cavernous gothic church atop the morbid burial ground to contain the wicked within. Centuries later, a scroll is discovered on site that literally puts a crack in the holy order and unleashes the church's dark secret, turning the house of God into a battleground for an ancient evil. The movie was conceived by a veritable who's who of Italian horror cinema: Dario Argento served as producer and writer, well-known screenwriters Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Ferrini helped pen the story, alongside Lamberto Bava of Demons/Demons 2 fame. The cast is comprised of familiar faces from various Italo-horror favorites, including Argento's daughter – a young Asia, in a starring role. It's Soavi's unique direction, and an incredible score from Goblin and Keith Emerson (who reworked several Philip Glass compositions) that separates this underrated gem from a forgotten Spaghetti schlockfest.
There's no easy way to describe what happens at the heart of Pascal Laugier's Martyrs without diving into spoiler territory. It's a stark, violent, and despairing film that feels more at home alongside the works of Gaspar Noe and Pier Paolo Pasolini, than it does next to its bloody brethren in the ranks of French horror cinema (or America's extreme entries like Saw or Hostel). Nihilistic and unrelenting, Martyrs' quasi-religious exploration (think deeply disturbed devotion, depraved Deacons, and strange divinities) has a philosophical edge and worships at the altar of flesh and blood.
Oliver Reed has one of the greatest film ‘staches of all time in Ken Russell's 17th century hysteria tale, The Devils. The film is based on the famous Loudun possessions/public exorcisms, which rocked the lives of the Ursuline nuns and placed the wealthy and desirable Father Urbain Grandier on trial for his life. Vanessa Redgrave delivers a memorable and incredibly chilling performance as the hunchbacked Mother Superior at the center of the frenzy. The unique set design, powerful visuals, and utter sacrilege on display propels this story of greed, lust, and the unholy horrors of a corrupt system.
Lord of Illusions
Clive Barker's films have always suffered from a "too many cooks in the kitchen" syndrome – the meddling mass of studio hands that have compromised the writer's dark vision by twisting it in all the wrong ways. Still, Lord of Illusions managed to rise to the top of Barker's filmography despite undergoing a similar treatment and multiple cuts. Murder, occult magic, a terrifying and twisted cult (lead by the formidable Nix – played by Daniel von Bargen, who is one of Barker's finest screen villains), hard-boiled detective action, and supernatural thrills guide you through an elaborate tale of deadly illusions. Best line (when asked, "What are you?"): "A man who wanted to become a God … then changed his mind."
Prince of Darkness
You can catch a peek at some of the world's oldest computers in John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness – which is one of the nicer things people sometimes say about the film – but a bleak tone and glimpses of some rather dark social/religious/political concepts shine through all the awkward misfires. In Carpenter's second entry in the Apocalypse Trilogy, the devil lives inside a vial of green, glowing goo, and the cast grapple with questions of science and faith, while searching for meaning in a world that is slowly slipping away from itself. Points for Alice Cooper playing one of the psychotic, homeless "zombies" who swarms the church. The sinister, synth-heavy soundtrack (courtesy of Carpenter himself and Alan Howarth) helps evoke the perfect mood.
The House of the Devil
Ti West's satanic chiller/80's horror throwback captures the psychosexual anxiety and mood of the time – a period when every daytime talk show was talking about blood sacrifices, horned gods, and heavy metal mayhem. The film supersedes its nostalgic nod, however, and delivers a well-crafted tale with a slow-boiled sense of dread that still packs a mighty wallop. Is there more perfect casting than Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the bizarre couple who hire a college student to "babysit" for one night in their iconically creepy house (which becomes one of the movie's coolest characters)?
Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam Vet in New York City who lives a strange and desolate life. His divorce, the death of his young son, and his job as a postal carrier – despite having a doctorate in philosophy – could be a few of the reasons that Jacob is seeing demonic faces all around him. While on the surface, the film is essentially about life, death, and all its spiritual implications, director Adrian Lyne allows us to become immersed in Jacob's dreamy and disturbing stasis without overloading us with preachy messages or cliché plotlines. The mundane is completely menacing in Jacob's Ladder and helps provide a glimpse into the surreal and ghostly ephemera of a life that hovers along the in-between.