When “The Possession” debuts in theaters this weekend, it’ll be the latest in a long line of demonic horror movies. Since the Silent Era, filmmakers have been conjuring up all sorts of devils and demons to terrify audiences. Let’s take a brief look at some notable examples through the years.
“The Possession” actually has an interesting wrinkle in that it’s based on Jewish lore, a bit of a rarity when it comes to this particular sub-genre. In addition to the dybbuk (the malevolent spirit featured in “The Possession”), Jewish legends speak of “The Golem,” a totem created by various rabbis throughout centuries.
The most famous example is “The Golem of Prague,” which serves as the loose inspiration for this early silent horror classic from Paul Wegener. In the film, a rabbi creates a clay golem and infuses it with a dark spirit in order to protect his ghetto from persecution by the Holy Roman Empire. However, in true horror movie fashion, his creation eventually revolts and becomes a monster that wreaks havoc.
A noteworthy precursor to James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” “The Golem” stands as one of the best examples of German Expressionist cinema, the early style that largely defined the silent era and beyond (Whale would notably build upon the visual themes and style from the Expressionist movement).
“Night of the Demon”
Also known as “Curse of the Demon” in its truncated American release, this 1957 gothic staple features a man with a death curse. Supernatural skeptic John Holden (Dana Andrews) runs afoul of self-professed sorcerer Dr. Karswell (Niall MacGinnis), who has the abilities to summon demons and place hexes on his enemies.
One of the last gasps of the classic Val Lewton style (which director Jacques Tourneur helped to define a decade earlier), “Night of the Demon” is a wonderfully atmospheric film that might have actually worked better without its titular demon. Tourneur himself certainly though so, as he lamented the producers’ addition of the giant beast during post-production.
Arguably the definitive film centered around possession, William Friedkin’s masterwork still resonates today, nearly 40 years after its release. While it’s the loud, schlocky stuff that gained the film its infamy (and plenty of sleazy, trashy knock-offs), the film is also quietly unnerving in its exploration of tainted innocence and a priest’s loss of faith. Even after hordes of imitators, “The Exorcist” is still the king of the possession mountain.
One of the more fun demon films, this silly romp from Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento mixes atmosphere, humor, and gore, and still stands as one of the 80s most entertaining Italian splatter fests. The film finds a theater audience under siege when life begins to imitate art–just as the characters on screen become possessed by demons, so, too does the audience, save for those left fighting for their lives.
Among them is a pimp, essayed by cult favorite Bobby Rhodes, who would return in the film’s only true sequel, “Demons 2.” In the years following that film’s release, a bunch of unofficial sequels cropped up, including three different films claiming to be “Demons 3.”
“Drag Me to Hell”
While Sam Raimi will always be remembered for raising hell in a rural Tennessee cabin in 1981, his return to horror in 2009 showed that he hadn’t lost much of a step. Much like he did with Bruce Campbell, he puts poor Alison Lohman through 90 minutes of torment when a gypsy woman curses her.
Possessing the right mix of gross-out gags, humor, and scares, “Drag Me to Hell” is one of the best horror films to emerge during the past decade. Hopefully Raimi brought some of the same black magic to “The Possession” in his producing capacity.