Exorcisms in horror movies and exorcisms in real life are quite different. In real life, they look a lot like this. In movies, they can be extremely overdramatic, it’s like an epic battle scene. Most of the time, if not always, it is a heroic main character or religious figure squaring off against a despicable and powerful demonic entity. There’s so much dramatic banter. Furniture and other fixtures from the room are always flying around all over the place, rarely connecting, and smashing into the walls. Exorcisms are the quintessential good versus evil standoff, making them the perfect action scene for a horror movie.
What follows is a ranking of what I consider to be the nine best exorcism scenes from genre cinema. Click the links in the headers to watch the sequences for context…
The story of The Exorcism of Emily Rose was loosely based on the story of Anneliese Michel, who was also the focus of the movie Requiem, released a year after The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Scott Derrickson, who wrote and directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has been a mainstay in horror for a long time now.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is largely what put Derrickson on the map. It received mixed reviews at the time of release but is well regarded as a semi-classic. Not only that, it made a shit ton of money at the time, $144 million worldwide.
The movie surrounds the court case involving Tom Wilkinson’s Father Moore character who is charged with negligent homicide while performing an exorcism on Emily Rose, who was lost to the battle. Laura Linney plays the defense attorney and the whole movie plays out as flashbacks to Emily’s final days as the testimonies are given in court.
This scene is a solid exorcism sequence, but the real strength of this movie is the paranormal activity surrounding Linney’s character as well as Emily Rose in the flashbacks. Even though this scene is worthy of the top nine, it leaves more to be desired.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a good possession movie, Jennifer Carpenter really crushed it as the titular character, and Wilkinson and Linney were as good as always.
South Korea has become a hot bed of interesting genre/horror movies made by auteurs. Movies like A Tale of Two Sisters from Kim Jee-woon, Oldboy from Park Chan-wook and Train to Busan from Yeon Sang-ho are all-time classics and revered worldwide. Filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho have gone on to find great success across genres. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum was a found footage revelation. But The Wailing might be the most ambitious of all of them.
The Wailing, from writer/director Na Hong-jin is about the mystery of a small village plagued with a sickness that seems to cause its inhabitants to become mentally and physically unwell, leading to mysterious murders and chaos. The Wailing is one of those movies without jump scares, all of the scares come from the bleak atmosphere of the village and dark story. The depressing quality really gets under your skin and The Wailing is effectively scary as hell because of it.
This particular Shaman scene is my favorite in the movie. It is essentially a South Korean version of an exorcism. Full disclosure, it is unbelievably weird, but the sound design in this scene is so well crafted and the camerawork is very effective. The performances are what make this scene special though, particularly from the possessed young girl, Hyo-jin, played by Kim Hwan-hee. All she really does in this scene is scream, but she does it perfectly. She actually seems possessed. The dancing Shaman and the unbelievably loud chime/gong/drumming sounds could have turned out to be ridiculous, but it is actually one of the most believable and disturbing exorcism scenes in any movie ever. You would be hard pressed to find something as bleak and unsettling as The Wailing…
Full disclosure: I like Ron Livingston, but in my opinion, he’s not doing his best work in this scene. He is just kinda… there. And it hurts the scene enough to deem it unworthy of the top five. He’s not horribly cast, and actually makes a lot of sense for this role, but it really seems like a mailed in performance. He just sits there and seems disinterested in the exorcism as it is happening. His wife was possessed and on the verge of being lost to Bathsheba, god forbid her husband shows any emotion.
With that said, Wan’s directing and the performances of Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor are outstanding, and Bathsheba is legitimately horrifying as a villain. Film schools should be teaching the camera techniques used in this movie. The Conjuring is a master class in set-up and payoff. James Wan is easily one of the most talented living horror filmmakers. His ability to craft terrifying scenes with absolute ease is unmatched in the genre…
The Cleansing Hour is a Shudder exclusive, and a great movie. Directed by Damien LeVeck and written by LeVeck and Aaron Horwitz, The Cleansing Hour is an exorcism movie about a duo of best friends who host and produce an online reality television show, called The Cleansing Hour, where they perform live, fake exorcisms on unknown actors and push the content as authentic.
Father Max is played by Ryan Guzman. He is a wannabe celebrity who is a pseudo-priest but mostly a fraud. His best friend, Drew, played by Kyle Gallner, is the brains of the operation and the producer of the show. They both want different things from the series. Drew wants money, and Father Max so desperately wants fame. This causes friction in their strong relationship, and the seediness of both is brought to light when they perform an “exorcism” on Drew’s girlfriend, who is replacing another actress on short notice, but pretty quickly it goes wrong and becomes obvious that she is actually possessed by a demon. Forcing Father Max to actually perform an exorcism on live tv, but mostly forcing Father Max to reveal that he is a fraud. The premise is fantastic, and the movie is a lot of fun throughout.
I included this scene because I appreciate how the exorcism basically flips and becomes the demon finessing the fraudulent priest. This scene also kicks off the always fun ‘forced to tell the truth about past misdeeds’ trope that often works well in horror movies, to go with the Saw-like game that Father Max has to play. Also, the ‘Hokey Pokey’ song needle drop had me standing up and hokey pokey-ing around my home.
The Last Exorcism is just so weird. The way it is shot made me so uneasy throughout. I remember when this came out in 2010 because Eli Roth’s name was attached to it, which undoubtedly helped its box office performance. I also think it might be the only movie to ever use Chatroulette as a marketing strategy.
Daniel Stamm did a great job directing The Last Exorcism. The finale is scary as all hell and totally not what I was expecting going into it. The whole thing is so grisly and disturbing, with the young girl being pregnant to go along with being possessed. Animal killing, cult stuff, and satanic possession are all not the menu. Like I mentioned, the finale is wild, and the mystery of the movie is really well played.
The all-time classic. The box office speaks for itself, if you punch in the $428 million earned at the box office in 1973 into an inflation calculator, then that value jumps to $2.9 billion. Obviously not an exact science there, but to put that in context, that number would make The Exorcist the highest grossing movie of all time. It cannot be emphasized enough how much of a financial hit The Exorcist was.
Everyone has most likely had a conversation in their lives about the Regan MacNeil exorcism scenes. So many scenes in this movie are deeply ingrained in pop culture. The spinning head, green slime foaming out the mouth and being projectile vomited, the floating bed and floating body, long tongue, the crucifix being… yeah you get the point, are all legendary. But my favorite scene is near the finale when Regan, possessed by Pazuzu, hurls Father Merrin and Karras across the room, she gets on her knees in bed, flailing her arms and screeching, as the Pazuzu demon appears in the shadowy corner of the room, as Karras and Merrin look on in shock. Even though Pazuzu is an immobile statue-like figure, I still find it to be one of the scariest demons ever put on screen, an absolutely menacing and brilliant movie sequence…
3. STIGMATA (1999)
Sorry. I know people like this movie. But I don’t. Crossing it off the list…
Although the overall finale in this movie is long and does not contain much of a typical exorcism scene, the quick part where Lorraine finally gets through to Valak at the very end of the confrontation was just so well done. In particular, the shot at the 3:30 mark of this video when Valak’s facial expression changes after realizing Lorraine has it beat.
Valak is visually one of the scariest movie creations in the last ten to twenty years. James Wan is incredible, and even though I prefer the first Conjuring, I believe that the technical aspects of the second film blow the first one out of the water. The Crooked Man, Old Bill Wilkins in the chair, Valak. The unfortunate Hodgson family ended up in one of the most brutal haunted houses. There are much scarier scenes in this movie, but as a standalone exorcism scene, this sequence is incredibly effective…
Okay, hear me out, and don’t leave this because of what I’m about to say. Exorcist III is just as good as The Exorcist, (whispers) if not better…
The Exorcist is obviously a stone-cold classic. Not debating that, the performances and the writing and the directing and the sound design and score and set design and everything about it is genius. But William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III is a notch above the original Exorcist in my opinion. This movie is scary, deeply religious, interesting and again… scary as hell. Starring George C. Scott and written and directed by William Peter Blatty, Exorcist III is an all-time classic that is unfortunately plagued by having multiple cuts, Blatty’s preferred original cut, and then the studio cut. The studio cut was not well liked, and Blatty’s directors cut is beloved (maybe it is a good idea to let the guy who incepted the idea for the movie and the entire damn franchise the freedom to do what he wants?).
Father Morning, played by Nicol Williamson, is an outstanding movie character. His voice in this scene in particular is so heavy and commanding, perfect exorcism voice. The performance from Jason Miller as the Patient X / Gemini (who returns from the original) is great in this scene as well. The fire and the action and Bible exploding were all so perfectly crafted. Every scene with the Gemini Killer is riveting. Outside of this scene, I thought the Brad Dourif performance was the best of his career, and he has had some outstanding performances, particularly in horror movies. Dourif might be the most underrated American actor. For the love of god, just go watch Exorcist III if you haven’t already. This scene and this movie are high marks in the exorcism sub-genre…
Written by the great Tommy Lee Wallace–who in 1982 was on a spectacular run of working on classic horror movies. Writing both Amityville 2 and Halloween 3 in the same year, to go with directing Halloween 3. Wallace did not direct Amityville 2 though, as it was Damiano Damiani who directed the movie, with the legendary Dino De Laurentiis serving as the producer. Wallace is a longtime collaborator of John Carpenter, serving as a jack of all trades on the production side of a few of Carpenter’s most famous movies, The Fog and Halloween (even manufacturing the iconic Michael Myers mask for Halloween).
Amityville 2: The Possession is a sleeper classic. It’s actually really good–and yet it does not get a lot of respect as a legitimate classic. Amityville 2: The Possession is about a family, the Montelli’s, who move into the famous haunted Amityville lake house at 112 Ocean Ave. Burt Young plays Anthony Montelli, the father of this family.
The Montelli’s are loosely based on the DeFeo’s. Sonny Montelli, who is based on Ronald DeFeo Jr. (who actually died in jail almost two years ago), was played by Jack Magner, and he was fantastic in this movie. Such a good performance. Most people are familiar with the story of the DeFeo family, and in particular Ron DeFeo Jr. Ron Jr. was, according to him, possessed by a demon, and was forced to kill his entire family with a rifle.
Father Adamsky, played by James Olson, spends the entirety of the movie trying to help the Montelli family, and in particular, Sonny. The Montelli story plays out pretty much identically to the DeFeo story. And after Sonny is arrested for killing his entire family, Father Adamsky takes it upon himself for whatever reason to free Sonny from prison in order to perform an exorcism on him. The exorcism seemingly succeeds, but of course, the demonic presence latches on to Adamsky. This exorcism scene in particular is one of the best of all time, if even just for the practical effects. The way Sonny’s face caves in on itself as he claws it apart and forms into a ghoulish new face was mesmerizing.
Amityville 2: The Possession worked for me because it took the DeFeo story, added some cocaine-fueled ’80s craziness to the story, and also injected some John Carpenter-esque practical horror effects that ooze B-movie camp. Even with the bizarre plot and all of the uncomfortable physical/mental/sexual abuse that occurs in this family, I still find this movie to be undeniably entertaining. Amityville 2: The Possession probably won’t be at the top of any other lists. Well, maybe not even part of any list ever. But it tops mine, and this scene in particular is my favorite exorcism scene of all time…
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