FACT: For millions, the Bible is a wellspring of hope and inspiration for daily living.
FACT: For decades, horror filmmakers have also turned to the Bible and Biblical lore for inspiration. Why? For starters, there’s some gruesome imagery there. Let’s not even start on the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth gore of the Old Testament. In the kinder, gentler New Testament there’s death by stoning, death by beheading and (SPOILER ALERT) death by crucifixion.
So, if seeing The Last Exorcism 2 this weekend left you wanting something more (and I’m told by a reliable source that it might have), here are seven great ways to scratch your religious horror itch. Just don’t scratch too hard. Unless, of course, you’re a practicing flagellant.
7. Stigmata (1999)
A stereotypical Gen-X character of the 90s, Frankie Page lives in a sweet apartment, has quirky friends and parties all night to throbbing industrial music. It’s all swell until she begins violently manifesting the stigmata — the wounds suffered by Christ. The puncture wounds through the wrists and feet and lacerations across the back and head are a serious pain in the ass (not literally) but the final wound could truly prove fatal. Enter Father Andrew Kiernan, who traverses the world at the behest of the Vatican investigating and debunking miracles. This doubting Thomas might be the only person who can save Frankie’s life.
Stigmata is a film that, in some ways, has not aged well. The pop culture accouterments and an over-the-top score by Billy Corgan firmly ground this film in the past, but the performances make it worthwhile. Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne share an unlikely chemistry in what turns out to be a Gothic platonic love story, swathed in conspiracy theories and violent surrealism. Watch for Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi in an early supporting role.
6. Event Horizon (1997)
One of genre filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson’s first features borrows heavily from Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens, but it’s not necessarily a sin to steal from the best, right? The plot also seems influenced by an unlikely source — Disney’s 1979 haunted-house-in-space tale The Black Hole. As in The Black Hole, our intrepid heroes come across a long-lost derelict spacecraft, designed by a mad scientist. In this case, Dr. William Weir (the delightfully slimy Sam Neill) plans to take our heroes through space and time to a dimension we know as Hell. Capt. Miller (the ever-badass Laurence Fishburne) ain’t havin’ that shit.
This is an entertaining yet flawed film that simply stops making sense after a while. A fun ensemble cast and broodingly ornate production design keep it watchable, even as the plot spins into absurdity. Anderson is uncompromising in illuminating a vision of Hell that’s truly unsettling. And the Event Horizon’s faster-than-light gravity drive — the source of all the mayhem — looks like a Copernicus globe re-engineered into a medieval torture device.
5. Damien: Omen II (1978)
The Omen (1976) is hailed by many as a horror classic while its sequel, Damien: Omen II, gets short shrift. That’s unfortunate, as the sophomore entry in the series is actually its strongest chapter. In the first film, Damien (aka The Spawn of Satan) is a taciturn child who’s mostly a creepy bystander while an unseen force pulls the strings to eliminate his foes. The second film finds the enormously gifted Jonathan Scott-Taylor playing Damien as a witty and precocious adolescent, capable of both endearing charm and chilling menace. He’s a far more interesting villain this time around.
Incidentally, the aforementioned Sam Neill would play Damien as a young man in 1981’s Omen III: The Final Conflict. And, according to Wikipedia, Scott-Taylor would eventually retire from acting after playing The Antichrist to become a lawyer (provide your own cheap shot here).
4. The Exorcist III (1990)
The Exorcist franchise is sort of like the Mission: Impossible of horror. Each movie has a different director and it’s own feel, and the quality varies widely. And in each case, the third film in the series deserves more love than it usually gets. For this chapter, author William Peter Blatty — who wrote the original Exorcist novel and screenplay — directs and adapts his 1983 novel, “Legion.”
George C. Scott plays the cantankerous Lt. Kinderman, a too-old-for-this-shit cop who investigated the mysterious deaths in the 1973 film. After a series of horrific homicides catches his attention, Kinderman finds himself on the trail of a supernatural serial killer.
The third act of this film devolves into something of a mess, thanks to unfortunate studio meddling, but reading Blatty’s novel reveals faults in the original source’s ending as well. Still, Blatty does deliver some delicious bursts of adrenaline — including a classic Hitchcockian scene involving a glass of ice water and a large, shiny pair of bone shears.
3. Hellraiser (1987)
If you’re a dedicated horror acolyte, you’re probably on a first-name basis with these icons: Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, Michael and — perhaps the most viscerally disturbing of them all — Pinhead.
Macabre visionary Clive Barker directed and wrote this cinematic adaptation of his 1986 novella “The Hellbound Heart,” birthing an unrelentingly bloody masterpiece. Frank is a perverse raconteur in search of transcendence. He finds it at the hands of the Cenobites (“Demons to some. Angels to others,” is how Pinhead describes himself and his twisted crew.) The price for the trip is high and will be paid in gallons of gore.
Chistopher Young’s operatic score soars as the melodramatic performances verge on pure camp. This is one weird, nihilistic tale where emotions run high and the existential terror races alongside tragedy on a human scale.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1965)
Rosemary Woodhouse is the young bride of an egocentric actor, a naive fish out of water in the fast-paced metropolis of Manhattan, and the target of a coven of Devil-worshippers who want to use her body as a vessel for unspeakable evil.
Roman Polanski’s paranoid supernatural thriller is nothing less than a perfect film. It sails counter to the prevailing wind of modern horror by holding back almost completely on the violence and cheap jump-scares. Instead, the terror hits you as a spine-tingling, seductive accumulation of subtle suspense.
Part of the enduring fascination this film inspires stems from what some of us superstitious types consider to be the real-life curse surrounding its creators. If you’ve never heard of the curse, I won’t get into the details here, but it’s a lattice of coincidence that involves a few high-profile murders and uncanny accidents.
1) The Exorcist (1973)
Surprise, surprise, The Exorcist tops this list. It’s actually sort of a toss-up for me to rate this as No. 1 over Rosemary’s Baby, as the original theatrical versions of both are flawless. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
If you don’t know the story by now … Regan McNeil is a 12-year-old, all-American girl who becomes possessed by a demon claiming to be “the Devil himself.” Much angst ensues.
What makes The Exorcist such a great film? For starters, every element of sight and sound in practically every frame is crafted to deliver maximum dread. Director William Friedkin is a purist and a perfectionist. Very few filmmakers (especially those laboring within the Hollywood dreadnought) can muster the discipline, attention to detail and care Friedkin displayed here.
On top of that, this is the only film on this list capable of truly inspiring faith. This is the tale of a group of flawed and vulnerable mere mortals who band together against almost impossible odds. They come to believe in each other and their higher power as their only hope against infinite evil. And at their darkest hour, they offer the dearest sacrifice to wrest an innocent child from the grip of a profanely malevolent deceiver and abuser.
The Exorcist is, honestly, as life-affirming and uplifting of a film as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It just happens to contain a lot more sacrilege and projectile vomit.
What’s your favorite religious horror movie?