Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema focused on possession films. The first half of the show surveyed the Exorcist film series and the second half considered some other demonic possession pictures. Here is the commentary from the show as well as a few additional titles.
1983’s Evil Dead was a very modest production but it birthed one of the horror genre’s most popular franchises. The original movie is about a group of friends who visit a cabin in the woods, read from the Necronomicon, and are besieged by demons. Evil Dead II was a soft reboot of its predecessor but done better. The third film, Army of Darkness, was a much more mainstream mix of fantasy, adventure, and comedy. The story continued on television with Ash vs. Evil Dead which ran for three seasons. A remake of the original Evil Dead was released in 2013 and a new incarnation, Evil Dead Rise, was released in 2023.
Night of the Demons
Quite reminiscent of Evil Dead was 1988’s Night of the Demons which also mixed a haunted house premise with demonic possession. A group of teenagers throw a Halloween party at an abandoned funeral parlor and an evil force begins taking over their bodies one by one. It’s a fun piece of 1980s body horror with a lighter tone and an emphasis on the makeup effects. Two sequels followed. A remake of Night of the Demons was released in 2009 and it was one of the better entries in the trend of horror remakes from that time. 2009’s Night of the Demons had a fun punk rock soundtrack album reminiscent of 1985’s Return of the Living Dead.
The Pope’s Exorcist
Real life priest Father Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome and one of the founders of the International Association of Exorcists, had achieved some fame in recent years before his death in 2016. The Pope’s Exorcist gave Amorth the Hollywood treatment and turned him into a superhero fighting the forces evil. Despite Russell Crowe’s performance, which is kooky and fun, The Pope’s Exorcist is not very good. It is frequently unintentionally funny much more so than it is scary.
1971’s The Devils was directed by Ken Russell and adapted from the book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley. The film dramatizes a real-life case of mass possession among a group of nuns at a convent in seventeenth century France. As depicted in the book and the movie, the possession was most likely a case of psychological mass hysteria that was capitalized upon by unscrupulous political actors who used the panic for their own ends. The Devils was a controversial film and it was drastically cut for its theatrical and home video releases. Warner Bros., despite being the studio behind The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange, and Natural Born Killers, has refused to widely distribute The Devils. After a VHS and laserdisc release in the 1990s The Devils has remained virtually unavailable although it shows up on streaming services from time to time. The movie has been praised by filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro who has called for The Devils to be released.
Demons & Demons 2
Lamberto Bava’s Demons films were fun splatter movies about demonic possession. Quite a distance from the style and tone of The Exorcist, the first movie is about a group of strangers gathered in a movie theater in which mass demonic possession breaks out and the unafflicted must fight to escape. This is essentially a zombie film but with the horde demonically possessed instead of undead. Demons 2 had a similar premise but this time located inside of a high-rise apartment building. The Demons movies are goofy and gory fun with lots of excessive special effects and a rock and roll attitude.
It Lives Inside
It Lives Inside presents a tale of demonic haunting and possession from a distinctly Indian-American point of view. An Indian-American teenager observes her former best friend become consumed by fear of a demonic entity and when her friend goes missing she is plagued by violent supernatural phenomena. The narrative of It Lives Inside struggles with consistency and internal logic but it has a creepy atmosphere and the final confrontation has an unexpected resolution that’s unnerving and provocative and has interesting implications when set against the picture’s portrait of immigrant life.
Jennifer’s Body was a horror comedy about a teenage girl who becomes host to a man-eating demon. Like a lot of possession films, Jennifer’s Body is another example of young women being invaded and overtaken by a monstrous entity. However, the filmmakers use that premise in a way that is self-aware. The movie overtly acknowledges the fear of female sexuality that underlines a lot of possession films and Jennifer’s Body is probably the best use of Megan Fox in a feature film.
The Last Exorcism
The Last Exorcism was a found footage horror picture with a compelling idea. It begins as a confessional. The main character is an exorcist who is a fraud. He reveals his tricks to the camera with the intent of coming clean about the possession racket and how conmen have taken advantage of people with mental illness. Things take a turn when the protagonist accepts his last assignment and discovers a case that might be real or might be an instance of domestic abuse. For most of its running time The Last Exorcism plays up that mystery quite well but the ending is disappointing.
The success of The Exorcist led to a lot of knockoffs and other movies about possession. Among them was the 1974 Italian film Antichrist. A woman who has psychosomatically lost the ability to walk undergoes hypnosis and taps into memories of an ancestor, causing her to be possessed. While it definitely rides the coattails of The Exorcist, Antichrist also includes a few unique ideas such as the way the possession cures this woman of her inability to walk.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The Exorcism of Emily Rose was marketed as a true story but it was essentially complete fiction. The story was about a possession in which the supposedly possessed young woman died. Jennifer Carpenter gives a committed performance in the title role and the exorcism set piece is among the best in the genre. But most of the movie is a courtroom drama in which a priest is blamed for this young woman’s death. The legal drama plays more like God’s Not Dead than The Exorcist and it’s about as intellectual flimsy.