The idea of demonic possession is as old as religion itself, but on boxing day 1973 The Exorcist brought the devil to the cinema and a genre was born. When thinking of possession movies, it’s easy to be fooled into believing that they are limited to the many twenty-first-century Exorcist knock offs. You’ll be familiar with these. A young person, usually female, gets possessed by a demon, she deteriorates into a ruined form, pulls some bone-cracking shapes, and in a climactic exorcism, is saved from the clutches of the unclean beast.
It’s a well-trodden path. These movies are scary. Of course, they are, they depict in depraved detail the violation, mutilation and degradation of a victim who is usually little more than a child. But all these movies draw the fear they generate from a single source. No, not the devil, The Exorcist. Those movies are scary because The Exorcist planted the seeds of evil.
However, movies that follow closely in the deep footprints of The Exorcist are by no means all this genre has to offer. Some take the seeds of dread planted in 1973 and do something new with that fear. Look beyond or before titles which cash in on variations of the word exorcism and you find a diverse and always terrifying genre, which includes everything from sci-fi to comedy.
12. The Exorcist III
It took a long time for this one to get the recognition it deserves. We see a distinct genre shift here, with the main narrative revolving around a detective story with supernatural elements sneaking into the periphery and edging ever closer to the centre.
The performances here are something else, Brad Dourif, in particular, stands out as an overpowering and terrifying presence. He just makes your skin crawl. His brutality and casual cruelty, the finesse of his malice make the viewer loath him. The character is truly vile.
Famously the studio wasn’t wholly on board with the totality of the genre shift. Specifically, they were shocked when they found out that the film was to feature no exorcism. While studio interference generally isn’t welcomed by filmmakers or audiences, in this case, it seems like a fair point. The film is called The Exorcist. The absence of an exorcism would have certainly confused audiences. What the studio asked for, they got. The climax is one of the most explosive examples of an exorcism on screen.
There is also now a director's cut, which pieces together what could be retrieved of the original vision of the film, sans studio interference. It’s not a completed cut as much of the footage was lost, but it is interesting to see.
In both edits, the tone goes in a new direction and what we get is a compelling thriller, which uses the supernatural sparingly and to great effect.