Demons can be a little hard to define, and sometimes in horror the term is used as a catch-all for anything that isn’t a ghost, werewolf, witch, vampire, or other readily definable monster. Satan is sometimes in the mix, but only sometimes.
The one constant, at least in the movies: A demon is an independent entity up to no good. It generally manifests from some other place that may or may not be what some religions think of as hell; often, they can possess us poor mortals and force us to do their bidding and/or say very bad swears. Sometimes they’re horrific in appearance (who’s to judge?), though they can also look a bit like Megan Fox, or dress in a very smart top hat and cape like our gentle friend the Babadook. Though they typically present as pure evil, the most interesting movies tend to suggest that the real demons are the metaphorical ones inside of us all.
Whether the power of Christ compels you to open Netflix or you’re feeling like it’s an excellent day for an exorcism, here are a handful of demonic films to stoke your satanic panic in the lead-up to Halloween.
Night of the Demon (1957)
Ambiguity elevates Night of the Demon, helping to make of it something a bit more than its lurid title (and budget) would suggest. Based on an M. R. James story and directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (Cat People), it tells of an American psychologist tasked with investigating a Satanic cult in England and helping determine if its members are culpable in a handful of deaths.
Though it employs a simple but effective demon special effect, the film never really tips its hand: either the cult is summoning actual demons, or they’re manipulating their victims into believing that they are. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter; the outcome is the same. (Martin Scorsese put together a list of his 11 favourite scary movies for The Daily Beast a few years back, and this one made the cut.)
The Exorcist (1973)
Well obviously, though it’s tempting to give this spot to the surprisingly good Exorcist III, if only to draw attention to that quieter but very smart sequel. But no, there’s a reason William Friedkin’s classic remains the ne plus ultra of demonic possession films: equalled on occasion, perhaps, but certainly never eclipsed. So many of its best scenes have been imitated and parodied for so long that they may have lost some of their power to shock, but the overall experience is as raw and disturbing as ever it was.
Burnt Offerings (1977)
Look, it’s a great deal: a giant, if slightly creepy, old mansion comes up for rent just as you and your family find yourselves in need of a break from city life. The admittedly weird owners are letting the place go for the whole summer for a song, and its remote location means that you won’t be bothered by anything or anyone. What’s the catch, you ask? Well, you’re just going to have to feed mother, who refuses to leave her cosy nook in the attic — but she’s Academy Award-winning screen legend Eileen Heckart! Seriously, what could go wrong?
Though the set-up is stock, the movie builds slowly and goes in some unexpected directions (seriously, never agree to feed your Airbnb host’s mother). Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis directed and co-wrote, and the cast is pretty amazing: not just Heckart, but Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and (deep in her horror-movie phase) Ms. Bette Davis herself appear.
The Beyond (1981)
The plot of The Beyond is, well, rather beside the point…but there’s something about a woman who inherits a New Orleans hotel that happens to sit on the gateway to hell. (In this real estate market, probably still worth it.) The selling point here is the involvement of director Lucio Fulci, concentrating all of his weirdest, goriest instincts into a brisk 90 minutes of oddly translated dialogue and cross-continental location work.
Evil Dead II (1987)
I was tempted to put the gnarlier original here, and it would very much fit, but instead will let the slightly more polished sequel stand in for the entire series — including the more overtly comic Army of Darkness and even the more serious (but surprisingly good) 2013 reboot. This one, aside from being the cornerstone of the unlikely franchise, also nails down the mythology around the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired evil book the Necronomicon as well as the deadites, the parasitic demons who both possess human bodies and feed on souls.
Black Roses (1988)
Before vaccine microchips, parents worried about Satan lurking in the grooves of their kids’ heavy metal LPs. And pretty much everywhere else — people in the ‘80s were very worried about Satan. Thank goodness we’re beyond believing in whackadoo nonsense. Anyway. In Black Roses, the title band comes to a sleepy town and quickly wins over the initially apprehensive local parents with its utter squareness. Bad for them, because that’s just the lead-up to a series of increasingly metal performances that bring out the devil in the local teens. As a piece of filmmaking, this one is objectively pretty bad — but the original soundtrack, done by a bunch of the guys from King Kobra, is great, and feeds into the fun throwback vibe that makes it a fun watch.
Def by Temptation (1990)
Two friends (Kadeem Hardison and writer/director James Bond III, no relation) reunite in New York City. One is an actor living his best life in the city, while the other is deeply religious but in the midst of a crisis of faith. Into his dark night of the soul steps a succubus on the hunt for unfaithful men to punish — though, truth be told, she’s not all that picky. The stylish, jazz and hip-hop-infused film is a bloody, sex-filled classic of ‘90s Black-led horror.
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Satan’s minions are often deployed in the service of metaphor, but rarely more explicitly so than in Adrian Lyne’s story of a troubled Vietnam veteran (Tim Robbins) who finds his life increasingly disrupted by demonic entities. It’s a experience that’s almost as emotionally exhausting for the viewer as it is for the lead character, and I mean that as a compliment: This is a well-acted character study with a heavy side existential dread — and a gut punch of an ending, even once you know the fabled twist.
Clive Barker’s fantasy revolves round the blood of the demon Baphomet, deity to the Nightbreed and the being whose blood grants access to their underground society. Craig Sheffer gladly partakes while escaping a series of murders that he’s pretty sure he committed. Barker’s “what if monsters were good and people are bad” parable is a little on the nose, perhaps, but as a dark fairytale, it works, and especially as a riff on queerness. (For a more straightforward horror experience, you can always opt for Barker’s Hellraiser, with its demon-adjacent cenobites.)
Demon Knight (1995)
It’s no art film, but Demon Knight (aka Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) is a fun survivors-under-siege action/horror movie with Billy Zane as a powerful demon on the hunt for an ancient key capable of triggering the apocalypse (he plays the role with just a hair less camp than he’d bring to Titanic a couple years later). Cinematographer and long-time Spike Lee-collaborator Ernest Dickerson directs the film with plenty of style and great practical effects, and it’s always fun to watch Jada Pinkett Smith kick arse.
Bringing Keanu Reeves in to play the comics’ quintessentially British demon hunter was…a choice, as was stripping him of most of his politics. Nevermind. He’s not the comic book character, but nobody can keep a straight face throughout a demonic possession action movie like Reeves. And this is an action movie, first and foremost, but a well-made and generally entertaining one that’s developed a bit of a cult following. Typically, demons in films have the upper hand, and, if they’re overcome, it’s just barely. Constantine lets us imagine a scenario in which The Exorcist is also John Wick, angels look like Tilda Swinton, and Satan is a schlubby Peter Stormare
Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Though it came out in Japan in 2005, Noroi didn’t get American release until years later, by which point found footage-style movies had become so ubiquitous (and developed such a mixed reputation) that it didn’t make much of a splash. Luckily, this one’s finally getting its moment in the sun via an official US release on Shudder. The premise involves documentary filmmaker Masafumi Kobayashi’s efforts to film and understand a series of strange occurrences that tie, somehow, to a demon named Kagutaba. His footage is presented as a completed documentary by a professional journalist, so we avoid a lot of the traditional shaky-cam shenanigans. The movie’s on the long side, and its brand of slow build isn’t for everyone, but assembles the disparate pieces of its central mystery with care, building to a climax that feels both unexpected and inevitable.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Jennifer’s Body flopped on its initial release back in 2009, in part for reasons that only underscore the movie’s themes: while writer Diablo Cody’s follow-up to Juno was intended as a feminist riff on high school horror, it was marketed as a showcase for Megan Fox’s hotness. The story of two friends, one mousy and the other a deadly succubus, is told entirely from a female perspective (still rare for a slasher movie), and the movie’s darkly funny dialogue is a cut above. It’s mixed reputation is exemplified in the places you can currently stream it: It’s available on both the jumble sale that it IMDb TV and the highly curated, definitely highbrow Criterion Channel.
Part of the one-two punch of James Wan’s old-school haunted house revival (along with the even more successful Conjuring series), Insidious has a couple of things that set it apart: first, a clever, pseudo-scientific internal mythology suggesting that the demonic creatures haunting the central family don’t come from a literal hell but rather a particularly funky parallel universe (a “fact” used to fun effect in the sequel). Second, it’s also got the great Lin Shaye, who takes over entirely as the series progresses in her role as Elise Rainier, one of the most quietly formidable characters in horror, and definitely the woman you’d want to call if your house were possessed by other-dimensional demons.
The Babadook (2014)
To some audiences, The Babadook is the story of stressed out Amelia, trying to raise her son following the death of her husband even as the titular demonic entity gradually encroaches on their lives, past trauma and the trials of single motherhood made horrific flesh. To other viewers, Mr. Babadook is a nattily dressed avatar for queerness (jazz hands always at the ready), brought into existence when Amelia discovers a book about the entity on her son’s shelf. Destroy the book and suppress all she likes, Amelia will never quite banish the idea from her son’s innocent little life. Good try though mum!
Under the Shadow (2016)
Unlike the often cute depictions of genies in western films, traditional jinns are a bit more formidable — though neither inherently good nor evil, they represent a class of being apart from humanity. And when they’re bad, they’re very, very bad. Set during the War of the Cities in 1980s Iran, Babak Anvari’s unusually scary film blends supernatural horror with daily life in war-torn Tehran.
Every few years a horror movie breaks through the critical opprobrium that so often attaches to the genre generally — usually one with just the right combination of arthouse gloss and uniqueness. Prestige horror, it’s sometimes called — and the movies selected for praise are often fairly tame, even if well-acted and directed. Hereditary, on the other hand, is absolutely bonkers, and I say that with tremendous enthusiasm. It’s not a good movie to know too much about going in, except that it revolves around a family that seems to be both literally cursed, as well as afflicted with generational mental illness. There’s a demon king in there somewhere too, but again, best to go in not knowing too much, so it can really knock your head off.
Daniel Isn’t Real (2019)
Look, we all have imaginary friends (right?), but when it gets to the point that your invisible pal convinces you to try to kill your mum, maybe it’s time to rethink that relationship. Young Luke does just that, locking away “Daniel” for years, until the pressures of college and his mother’s deteriorating mental state lead him to seek solace in his cool, confident alter ego. If saying so here isn’t a spoiler, it turns out that Daniel is a bit more than just a manifestation of Luke’s inner turmoil, but the movie nonetheless makes a decent stab at dramatizing the spiraling loss of control and vulnerability related to certain forms of mental illness.