©2021, by M. Keith Booker
Supernatural horror lies at the very heart of horror itself. It is also central to the cultural history of humanity. The sense that there might be other realities out there than our own, peopled by unknown and potentially monstrous entities with powers beyond ours, has been a part of human culture from the very beginning. Almost all religions posit the existence of monstrous Others, with Judeo-Christianity’s (and Islam’s) Satan standing at the very forefront of such beings. Because the rich legacy of myths, legends, superstitions, and religious visions provides fertile material for the imagining of supernatural horror stories, it should come as no surprise that supernatural horror lies at the very roots of horror cinema. Supernatural horror is not only one of the oldest, but also one of the richest veins in the horror tradition. In addition, many other types of horror subgenres contain supernatural elements. Vampires, in particular, are almost always envisioned as supernatural creatures, while even slashers such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees (and especially Freddy Kreuger) clearly have certain supernatural characteristics. This discussion, however, will focus on three particular kinds of horror films that draw their energies from almost entirely supernatural sources: ghost stories (including haunted house films), stories about witches, and stories about demons (including demonic possession and demonic cults). It should be noted, however, that there are other forms of supernatural horror and that many supernatural horror films could be placed in more than one of these categories. For example, Rosemary’s Baby, one of the greatest of all supernatural horror films, could be considered a witchcraft film, but it could also be considered a film about demonic possession or about a demonic cult. It is discussed here.
The kinds of stories covered in these categories have strong roots in religion and superstition that are quite ancient, while their modern form grows particularly out of the Gothic tradition that arose in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With all this background, it is not surprising that the modern supernatural horror film (that is, the horror film in the sound era) is essentially as old as sound film itself. Actually, what is surprising is that supernatural horror wasn’t more prominent in the early sound era. Apart from the fact that the first horror film of the sound era, Dracula (1931), had strong supernatural elements, early directors of horror films in the sound era seemed to be a bit squeamish about moving into supernatural horror, perhaps for fear of offending Christian audiences or perhaps simply for fear that such films would be too frightening for audiences with little experience of such things.
Before proceeding to outline the historical development of the supernatural horror film, I should note that there are numerous potential sources of horror imagery than the primarily Christian sources around which this chapter is structured. Native American mythology is rich in supernatural imagery, for example, though it has thus far been underutilized in horror film. It has occasionally appeared, though, as in the case of Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo (2001), which employs the Native American supernatural creature of the title as a key motif. On the other hand, the Wendigo of this film really features only in the (very unsatisfactory) ending to what is otherwise a fairly effective hillbilly horror film. Here, a family from New York City travels into the Catskills for an outing in the country, having been loaned the use of a friend’s country home. There, they are tormented by a crazed local who has a grudge against the owners of the house, which he regards as his rightful heritage. He ends up killing the father of the family, then is himself badly hurt (possibly fatally) after an apparent encounter with a Wendigo.
Among the strangest supernatural entities to have featured in horror films are the “kratts” of the 2017 Estonian film November. This film features a village of nineteenth-century Estonian peasants who lived in a world saturated with magi, heavily populated with supernatural entities, including ghosts, werewolves, and witches. But the most striking supernatural creatures are the “kratts,” which are distinctive entities derived from Estonian folk culture. A kratt can be built of almost any materials, as when the kratts of the film are weirdly cobbled together from leftover household junk, with results that are weird-looking to the extreme. A kratt can then be animated by the Devil in exchange for three drops of blood from the kratt’s owner, who can then employ the kratt as a sort of servant. Given all the magic in this world, it is not surprising that the characters of the film attempt to solve their problems via magic—not, however, with very good results.
The recent rise to global prominence of South Korean horror film has, predictably introduced supernatural motifs with a distinctively Korean spin. One of the most interesting of these is The Wailing (2016), directed by Na Hong-jin. Here, a series of strange (and bloody) events in a remote Korean town are at first a total mystery to the local authorities, especially the film’s protagonist, policeman Jong-goo (Kwak D-won). At first, Jong-goo seems a rather comic figure, afraid of his own shadow, which complicates the decoding of the film as it goes forward. There are also several important twists and turns that seriously complicate our own understanding of what is going on. Ultimately, the central event of the film is the possession of Jong-goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) by an evil spirit, ultimately causing her to kill her entire family, including her father. The exact nature of the evil spirit is never made entirely clear, though Satan himself (in the form of a Japanese man who has come to town) might be involved, with some of the locals as minions. There are also some Catholic priests, though they are of little help and have little impact on the plot, which does not necessarily depend upon a Christian mythology, though the film does begin with a Biblical epigraph. And, though there is certainly no Christ to be found in the film, there might be an Antichrist. Long, slow, and absolutely demented, The Wailing essentially makes up its own mythology from a stew of ingredients from both Christianity and Korean folklore. Many horror films have been accused of over-explaining their offbeat elements; no danger of that here.
Finally, just as a reminder that other cultures might have other sorts of supernatural entities, I might mention in some detail the 2013 film Djinn, made in Abu Dhabi with money from the U.A.E. and featuring mostly Arab actors, but directed by American Tobe Hooper. Hooper, of course, is a near-legend in horror-film circles, having directed such horror classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982), and the producers of the film clearly hoped that bringing him aboard would lend legitimacy to their project, which premiered at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Film Festival and was designed to help put Arab horror films on the map of global culture. Made very much within the confines of the Western genre of horror, but drawing its supernatural elements from the Islamic mythology of the djinn, the film features dialogue in both English and Arabic, thus furthering it status as an example of East-West cross-cultural exchange. At the same time, the use of this mythology presents the film with an opportunity for cross-cultural education. Americans whose image of djinn derives largely from the genies of the television series I Dream of Jeannie (1965–1970) or the Disney film Aladdin (1992) might certainly be surprised by the menacing jinn of Djinn.
The plot of the film has cross-cultural elements as well. It begins as a young married Arab couple, Khalid (Khalid Laith) and Salama (Razane Jammal), have just suffered an unspecified personal trauma in America, where they have lived together for the past several years. Despite Salama’s reluctance, they then return to the U.A.E. (where her family still lives) to get a fresh start, after Khalid arranges for his company to transfer him there. The two are put up in a posh company-furnished apartment in a brand-new (and still largely empty) high-rise building, constructed on the site of an ancient fishing village that seems to be located in the middle of nowhere—a company-supplied car and driver take Khalid back and forth from work each day in what amounts to a four-hour round trip.
The building, of course, turns out to be haunted by the djinn who had inhabited the fishing village before the high-rise was constructed there. This motif has strong allegorical resonances, as the jinn and their village can be taken to represent forces of tradition in conflict with a modernity that is reflected in the high-rise, an extremely modern building that is made more, rather than less, so by the fact that its interior décor seems designed to recall classic Arabic architecture—or perhaps the architecture of Moorish Spain. In fact, the styling of the arched doorways and other design features is so reminiscent of earlier Islamic models that it seems ostentatiously artificial, making the building a sort of postmodern pastiche of traditional Islamic design, imprinted upon the basic matrix of a modern high-rise, thus combining elements from the architectures of two different historical periods in the signature mode of postmodern architecture.
More than an authentic Arab structure, the high-rise seems like a simulacrum of an Arab structure, something that might be found in Las Vegas or a Disney theme park. The Las Vegas comparison might be especially apt given the setting in the U.A.E., given that cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi are artificial constructions sprouting out of the desert as miracles of modern capitalism, much like Las Vegas itself. Certain elements of the high-rise, meanwhile, are reminiscent of the Morocco Pavilion in Disney World’s Epcot Center. Elements of the high-rise are also reminiscent of a sort of Disneyfied Alhambra, the ninth-century castle-fortress built in Moorish Spain, which is especially interesting given that the high-rise itself is called Al Hamra (the Arabic version of the Spanish “Alhambra”). On the other hand, this name derives directly from that of Jazirat Al Hamra, an actual abandoned fishing village in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah that is supposedly haunted by djinn.
If much of Djinn thus derives quite directly from local lore in the U.A.E., the basic premise of the filmalso has much in common with Poltergeist, in which a modern suburb has been constructed on the site of an old cemetery. Both Poltergeist and Djinn thus generate their horror from a sort of return of the repressed, from revenge taken by tradition (in the form of supernatural ghosts or djinn from the past) against modernity (in the form of a contemporary family) for the destruction wrought by modernity on traditional ways of life. To add still another international element to Djinn, the nebulous, scurrying, black-cloaked djinn of the film are visually reminiscent of the ghosts in Japanese horror films such as Ju-On: The Grudge (2002). But the echoes of American horror films are particularly strong in Djinn, as when the nearly-deserted high-rise is in many ways also reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). What the film is most reminiscent of, though, is Rosemary’s Baby (1968), especially as supernatural babies are central to the plot. Khalid, it turns out, is the son of a djinn mother, and he and some creepy neighbors in the building are central to Salama’s undoing, just as Rosemary’s husband conspires with devil-worshipping neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby. It even turns out that the personal tragedy that occurred to Salama and Khalid in America involved Salama’s killing of their first baby when it began to manifest djinn characteristics.
Djinn was largely panned by critics, especially in the West. Jay Weissberg of Variety found the film “cheesy” and “ham-fisted,” while Ronan Doyle declared it to be “terrible” and “shoddily-shot.” Such critics have objected, especially, to the extent to which Djinn echoes predecessors such as Rosemary’s Baby, finding that these echoes made the film derivative and uninventive, thus missing an opportunity to inject new energies into the horror genre via the Middle Eastern setting and the Islamic mythology. Some in the Middle East objected to the Western texture of the film as well, and it was rumored (though never confirmed) that the two-year gap between the close of filming and the release of the film came about either because U.A.E. officials thought the film’s representation of the U.A.E. was objectionable or simply because the horror genre as a whole was so foreign to local tastes that the entire project came to be viewed as problematic. That said, the film did get some positive reviews in the Arab world, who felt that its use of Middle Eastern mythology might appeal to Arab viewers in a way that Western horror films couldn’t, especially given its focus on a modern Arab couple whose life experiences might mirror those of many Arab viewers. On the other hand, while Djinn supplies a bit of Quranic mythology as background to the djinn motif, in practice the djinn of the film seem pretty much the same as the ghosts and demons American audiences have already seen so many times.
Finally, one Western horror film that doesn’t fit well within my categorization scheme is Andy Muschietti’s It (2017), which grossed over $700 million worldwide and thus became the top-grossing horror film of all time. It is essentially the story of a haunting, but in this case an entire town, rather than a single house, is haunted. And the haunting entity, the “It” of the title, is a supernatural, dimension-hopping, shape-shifting clown who does not quite seem to be either a ghost or a conventional demon. In any case, this film, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same title, details the way in which It haunts the town of Derry, Maine, returning every twenty-seven years for a rampage of killing, especially of children. “It” is an ideal horror film monster: though its default identity is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It can manifest itself in different ways as well, showing a special proclivity for taking on the form of whatever frightens a specific victim the most.
In the film, which begins with a prologue set in the fall of 1988 but is mostly set in the summer of 1989, It again attacks Derry, but is this time defeated by a combined effort of marginalized early teens who call themselves the Losers’ Club. They are a quintessential group of young teen outsider “types.” Their leader is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a stutterer whose six-year-old brother is killed in the prologue. They also include a sickly kid whose obese mother nurtures his illnesses (Eddie Kaspbrak, played by Jack Dylan Grazer), a Jewish kid (Stan Uris, played by Wyatt Oleff), and even (gasp) a girl (Beverly Marsh, played by Sophia Lillis). Beverly is marginalized both by her gender and by her (undeserved) reputation for promiscuity. Several of the kids, in fact, are doubly marginalized. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is both fat and the new kid in school; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is both black and home-schooled; the bespectacled Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) is also a loudmouth clown who seems desperate for approval. All are in one way or another hampered by their family situations, the most troubling of which in the film involves Beverly’s incest-inclined father. They are also seriously oppressed by a gang of local bullies, so that It is definitely only one of their problems.
Indeed, It is as much an exploration of what it is like to come of age in a small town in the late 1980s than it is a horror film. Its focus on the 1980s, including heavy use of period music in the soundtrack, has a nostalgic air, as the kids tool about town on their bikes in what appears to be a simpler age. In this, It participates in a wave of recent films that have been dominated by eighties nostalgia, including such entries as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018). At times, the film seems almost Spielbergian, in fact, except that it refuses to paint the 1980s in entirely rosey hues: most of the character, in fact, have pretty terrible lives. Probably the most interesting thing about the film’s treatment of 1980s nostalgia, meanwhile, is the fact that King’s novel, written just over 30 years before the release of the film, is filled with 1950s nostalgia, which is then moved forward to the 1980s in the film. That novel, meanwhile, is also set partly in the 1980s, when the children are roughly 40, another 27-year cycle having passed. It deals only with the earlier segment of the novel. The later segment will be dealt with in a sequel, It: Chapter Two, scheduled to be released in late summer, 2019.
The Rise of Supernatural Horror Films
Most horror films of the 1930s only touched on supernatural elements, while focusing on more down-to-earth materials such as mad scientists. For example, Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), an early horror masterpiece that features both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the two biggest stars of early horror films, is primarily a mad scientist film. However, it also stipulates that Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig, though clearly a mad scientist type, is the leader of a Satanic cult, thus placing the film in contact with the kinds of supernatural horror films with which I am concerned here.
It is also the case that (just as early horror films were, more often than not, set outside the United States) early supernatural horror films often tended to focus on non-Western and non-Christian mythologies, perhaps to avoid potential controversy. For example, Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s German silent film The Golem (1915) and its successors drew upon Jewish mystical traditions and are rooted in the Middle East. Golem films never really took off in the sound era, though they have continued to appear here and there. Voodoo has also served as a source of exotic horror, as in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), which is often considered the first zombie film, though it has very little in common with the later kind of zombie film made prominent by George Romero. The zombies of White Zombie are old school Haitian voodoo zombies, essentially ghosts with bodies. Meanwhile, the zombies themselves are more victim than monster, created by the evil voodoo sorcerer Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi), somewhat like the beastmen of Island of Lost Souls are created by Moreau. Even Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy), the female lead, is turned into a zombie by Legendre so he can make her do his bidding (with possible sexual implications), but Legendre himself is killed, and Madeleine is saved. There is a fair amount of racial and gender stereotyping here, but this is one that can be read against the grain with just a little effort to potentially produce a critique of those stereotypes. It’s also really creepy in places.
Egyptian mythology was central to one of the first major American horror film to focus on almost entirely supernatural materials. Universal’s The Mummy (1932), released five months after White Zombie, has been described as essentially being a remake of Dracula from the year before, and it pretty much is—with a Transylvanian vampire replaced by an Egyptian mummy mystically raised from the dead and come to England to seduce a British woman. In this case, the mummy is one Imhotep, played by Boris Karloff, and the woman is Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), whom Imhotep believes is the reincarnation of his old love from ancient Egypt, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. This notion is supported by the fact that Helen’s mother is Egyptian, though this convenient fact also probably made the notion of a romance between an Egyptian man and a British woman more palatable for audiences at the time. This film differs from Dracula, though, in that Imhotep, while suitably spooky, is at least partly sympathetic, due to the theme of lost love as well as to Karloff’s compelling performance. Ultimately, Imhotep is struck down by the same magic that resurrects him, and we see him age thousands of years in seconds, ultimately turning to dust in a conceit that would be repeated in many a subsequent film. In this film, the Orientalism that underlies many a classic horror film is openly displayed front and center, and the film participates in a wave of Orientalist fascination that swept the West after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Still, the sympathy shown for Imhotep and the fact that Helen is half-Egyptian both complicate the film and make it a lot less racist than it might have been.
The Mummy was the founding text of a whole franchise of Mummy movies, though it had no literal sequels. Instead, it was rebooted in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), which then had several sequels of its own, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). The franchise then joined Universal’s comedy-horror crossover parade with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Meanwhile, with the full implementation of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934, it became even harder to produce supernatural horror films, even though the Code had very little to say about the supernatural itself.
Voodoo returned as a key topic in King of the Zombies (1941), from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. This film is a combined zombie/World War II film that features virtuous Americans doing battle with unscrupulous Nazis. However, it was released more than six months before the U.S. entered the war against Germany. It thus joins other works of American culture in 1941 (the famous comic book cover of Captain America punching out Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1941 is perhaps the best-known case) in anticipating the war, thus undermining the now-popular notion that the U.S. was blindsided by Pearl Harbor and somehow previously had no idea what was going on in the world. Here, a plane carrying an American agent crashes on a Caribbean island where a German mad scientist (played by Henry Victor, who had played the strongman Hercules in Freaks, though the role was originally meant for Bela Lugosi), is attempting to use voodoo and zombies to extract secrets from a captive American admiral. Silly as it sounds, it’s played fairly straight, except for the presence of the bug-eyed, ever-frightened Mantan Moreland as the agent’s black manservant, who provides the comic relief in a racist mode that, in retrospect, makes the Americans seem uncomfortably similar to the Nazis. Moreland, though, has a certain amount of on-screen charisma and actually makes his character more interesting and sympathetic than he has any right to be. This turkey actually garnered an Academy Award nomination (for best score), and it’s definitely watchable—if only to see what outrageous and offensive thing they’ll do next. There’s even a sequel, the 1943 Revenge of the Zombies.
By the 1940s, most of the energies of the “horror” genre were going into the emergent phenomenon of film noir, even though the film industry itself didn’t even realize it yet. This situation was addressed to some extent when RKO charged the young, unknown Russian-born producer Val Lewton with the task of making horror movies for them. It was one of the best decisions anyone in Hollywood ever made, and Lewton turned out a string of horror classics that have, by now, gained near legendary status. The first, and possibly best, of these was Cat People (1942), directed by French-born Jacques Tourneur, who would subsequently work with Lewton on I Walked With a Zombie (1943, again with supernatural zombies) and The Leopard Man (1943) as well, though he is perhaps best known for the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947). Cat People is a stylistic and atmospheric tour-de-force that, among other things, serves as a prime example of the lush black-and-white cinematography that would set Lewton’s horror films apart from their contemporaries, giving them something of the look of the best noir films. Thematically, it’s largely a collection of clichés, including a link between feminine sexuality and big cats that had already been seen in the Panther Woman Lota in Island of Lost Souls. It’s also an entry in the evil-comes-from-the-primitive-Balkans sub-genre of horror film (which dates back to Dracula), mixed with the all-cats-are-evil motif so commonly found in American film. Here, a Serbian woman (played by a French actress on the theory that any European can serve to signify foreignness) comes to America, feeling lost, but falls in love with and marries an American man. The relationship seems promising at first, but then it all goes terribly wrong, partly because she hails from a village with a legacy of devil worship and so might be bearing a curse that turns her into a dangerous cat if she gets too passionate. All of that might sound like a hackneyed B-picture. It isn’t, though. It’s a brilliant masterpiece of a B-picture, despite how any plot summary makes it sound. It truly has to be seen to be believed. It was remade in 1982 with Nastassja Kinski as the cat woman (and with a great song by David Bowie). The remake was in lurid, living color, which is probably one reason why it is not nearly as good as the original.
Of all the Val Lewton horror films, The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson, is probably the one that seems most like a fairly straight film noir. However, it does feature a Satanic cult that in some ways anticipates the one in Rosemary’s Baby. Lots of twists, though, including the fact that the cult members are pledged to nonviolence, which puts a bit of a damper on the horror. Moreover, as one would expect of Lewton, it’s not really about the scariness of Satan or anything supernatural. This one is about the fundamental strangeness and scariness of other people, no matter how well we think we know them. Of course, that’s largely true of Rosemary’s Baby, as well.
The Lewton-produced Curse of the Cat People (1944) was Robert Wise’s first real directorial effort, though he took over the film midway when the original director was fired for working too slowly. Such is the world of low-budget film. But this one is a gem. It has absolutely nothing to do with Cat People (or cat people), and very little to do with conventional horror (though it has a ghost of sorts). But it captures very nicely the genuine horror of being a child in an adult world. In this sense it is typical of Lewton, whose horror films often only pretend to be about supernatural phenomena, but are really very much about the terrors of daily life in the modern world. They sometimes seem simply to express or even endorse fear of things like feminine sexuality or nonWestern cultures, but just a little interpretive twist can produce critique. This one is particularly powerful as an antidote to all those horror films in which various demon children are terrifying to adults. If kids scare us adults, just think how we look to them.
As horror film moved into the 1950s, American horror came to be dominated by science fictional monster movies, while British horror was dominated by reboots of the Universal monster franchises. Near the end of the 1950s, however, there were signs of a turn toward horror films of the type I am concerned with in this chapter. This new trend began with ghost stories, but witches and demons were not far behind.
Most cinematic ghost stories before World War II turned out only to look like ghost stories—but ended up supplying a rational explanation for what had seemed to be supernatural events or simply to treat the ghosts as comic motifs. The Uninvited (1944) was an important deviation from this trend in that it featured real ghosts that were treated seriously. It still isn’t really scary, though, at least not by today’s standards, though it does feature some superb cinematography. And there is some genuine emotional tension at the center of the story, as young Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) is caught in the middle of a struggle between two ghosts, one her natural mother, one her adopted one. Though an American film (made by Paramount) with American actors, The Uninvited is set in a haunted house on the west coast of England, continuing the early tendency to set horror films outside the United States. The film was shot, however, in California and Arizona, England at the time being subject to German bombing during World War II.
Genuine ghost stories remained rare in American film, however, until the end of the 1950s, when a flurry of such films began to appear from both Britain and America. Still, even House on Haunted Hill (1959), one of the best-known of the horror films directed by William Castle, the P. T. Barnum of late-1950s horror film directors (and later, oddly enough, the producer of Rosemary’s Baby), actually involves a fake haunting. This one is an excellent atmospheric haunted house film in many ways, even if the haunting turns out to be fake, part of a mundane murder plot (and counter-plot). The film is best-known, though, for the promotional gimmick known as “Emergo,” which basically involved running a plastic skeleton on a wire over the heads of the audience at a key moment in the film when a skeleton (which also turns out to be fake) emerges from a pit of acid to wreak revenge on its “killer.” It’s also known for featuring Vincent Price as millionaire Fredrick Loren, who offers $10,000 each to a group of individuals if they can manage to stay in the haunted house for one night. It’s not that badly done, though the best part is the financial angle, which offers the possibility of reading the whole film as an allegory about the cutthroat nature of capitalism. Here, the needy have to be willing to do anything or suffer any indignity to obtain money, while the rich pull their strings.
The Innocents (1961) is a British adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, via William Archibald’s 1950s stage adaptation of that novella. Here Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, the governess who is hired to go to a remote country estate to take care of two children whom she becomes convinced have been possessed by the ghosts of two former servants who died in the house. The beauty of this film is that it manages (like The Turn of the Screw) to maintain an undecidable tension between this supernatural explanation for events and a more down-to-earth one (that the governess is insane). This tension might arise from the original novel, but it is possibly reinforced by the fact that director Jack Clayton wanted to emphasize the supernatural aspects of the story, while main writer Truman Capote wanted to emphasize the psychology of the repressed governess as the source of the seemingly supernatural events she witnesses. Whatever the source of the tension between these two emphases, this one is a jewel, one of the great haunted house movies ever made. Kerr is terrific as the governess, and the excellent cinematography (by Freddie Francis, who shot or directed a number of the Hammer horror films, among many other things) helps to create a genuinely disturbing atmosphere. The ending is especially strong and especially creepy. Just as it seems that the film is finally going to opt for a genuinely supernatural focus, the governess makes one last gesture that throws everything into doubt.
Tzvetan Todorov points to The Turn of the Screw as a central example of what he calls the “fantastic,” a narrative in which it remains undecidable whether seemingly supernatural events are really supernatural or actually have a rational explanation. That sort of uncertainty is rare in films, which generally (as with House on Haunted Hill) resolve into a rational, non-supernatural interpretation (what Todorov calls the “uncanny”) or into a genuinely supernatural interpretation (what Todorov calls the “marvelous”). The Haunting (1963) veers decidedly into the territory of the marvelous. Though a British-made film, The Haunting was directed by American Robert Wise and based on an American novel, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), one of the classics of the genre (and an important influence on people like Stephen King). Here, paranormal investigator Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) leads a group to check out the reported haunting of a creepy old mansion. Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) and Theodora (just Theodora, played by Claire Bloom) are the central threatened females in the group, with Eleanor seeming particularly vulnerable, though her own psychological problems (traceable to her domineering mother) may also be the source of some of the manifestations she thinks she experiences. Terrified through much of the film, she nevertheless clearly welcomes the attention she seems to be getting from the haunted house, having basically experienced nothing previously in life except the dominance of her mother. In the end, she is killed in a car crash while fleeing the house, which possibly allows her to join the house’s ghosts … forever. Lots of very creepy atmosphere make this one quite effective, while also providing a good demonstration that scary things you can’t see in movies are scarier than things you can see. This one, in fact, is widely regarded as one of the scariest movies of all time. It was listed at No. 1 on Martin Scorsese’s 2009 list of the scariest horror movies.
Where The Haunting is elegant, American movies about ghosts were a bit more raw in the early 1960s. However, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) is a very effective film that is in many ways the quintessential cult horror film. Made on a shoestring budget with low production values and mostly amateur actors, the film got very little attention on its initial release. It wasn’t, in fact, even copyrighted and went straight into the public domain. In subsequent years, however, it has gained a growing audience (largely because of its effective creation of a genuinely creepy atmosphere), and has even been released on a Criterion Collection DVD. Candace Hilligoss plays Mary Henry, who is ostensibly killed in a drag racing accident at the beginning of the film, as the car in which she is riding plunges off a bridge into the river. Then she seems inexplicably to emerge from the river virtually unscathed, though a bit shaken up. Subsequently, she seems weirdly out of phase with the people and things around her, while experiencing strange and disturbing hallucinations (not to mention the attentions of the truly noxious would-be Romeo with whom she shares a boarding house). All of this ultimately leads to a scene in a very disturbing abandoned amusement park where a group of the walking dead follow Mary to the nearby beach and take her down. Afterward, the cops find tracks in the sand (terminating in the middle of the beach), but nothing else. Then, in the film’s final scene, the original car is pulled from the river, and we see that Mary’s is among the corpses in the car. Hilligoss, one of the few professional actors in the film, is quite good as Mary, while Sidney Berger is a hoot as the Romeo. Most of the other actors are quite bad, but that’s actually good, because it nicely enhances the sense of strangeness and unreality with which Mary finds herself surrounded. Of course, it doesn’t help that she moves to Salt Lake City to take a job as a church organist right after the accident, which would make anybody’s life seem strange, but we are left to wonder in the end whether the bulk of the film was simply Mary’s dying fantasy, whether she somehow unnaturally escaped death in the river and then had to be brought back to the other side by death’s minions, or what. Doesn’t really matter, because the whole point of the film is its atmosphere and Mary’s sense of estrangement, which of course makes her emblematic of life in late capitalism as a whole. This one definitely deserves its cult status. And it anticipates a number of “I didn’t know I was dead” movies, such as The Sixth Sense (1999).
Speaking of low-budget horror, Roger Corman was the king of low-budget filmmaking in the early 1960s. The Terror (1963) features Corman directing a young Jack Nicholson (as he did multiple times), along with Dick Miller, Sandra Knight (Nicholson’s then-wife), and even Boris Karloff. It’s not the greatest movie in the world, but it’s fun to watch Karloff (then 76 and about as rickety as the cheap sets) and Nicholson (then 26) together. The greatness of years past meets the greatness of years future. Anyway, set mostly in a cheesy-looking castle somewhere in nineteenth-century Europe, the film features Knight as the apparent ghost of the former young wife of the now-old Baron von Leppe (Karloff), who supposedly caught her in flagrante and murdered her many years earlier. She now haunts the castle, trying to lure the Baron to his doom. There are lots of twists and turns and mistaken identities, but the details don’t much matter. In the end everybody gets killed except Nicholson’s Andre Duvalier, a French officer who just happens on the castle after riding his horse along the beach. Then he ends up creeped out after he rescues the “ghost,” thinking she might be a real girl, only to have her dissolve into goo for reasons that are not entirely clear, though she may simply be a sort of golem created by a local witch, her usefulness now over. There is also a great scene in which the castle starts to flood and collapse and large chunks of “stone” fall into the water and float. Corman understood very well that sometimes such things just don’t really matter in a certain kind of movie.
In 1965, Kwaidan put Japanese film on the ghost-movie map, anticipating the later prominence of Japanese films in that category. It doesn’t much resemble later films like Ringu or Ju-On, however. Instead, it’s an anthology of four different meditative, dreamlike ghost stories (based on Japanese folktales) that runs for more than three hours. There is actually quite a bit of action, but much of the film is spent building atmosphere—and quite effectively so. Roger Ebert described it as one of the most beautiful films he had ever seen, and he saw a lot of films. This one, in fact, is well worth watching just for the hallucinogenic visuals, even if it proceeds almost in slow motion by the standards of today’s horror films.
Like The Haunting, John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973) is a British haunted-house film based on an American novel, this time a novel by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay for the film. Actually, The Legend of Hell House resembles The Haunting in a number of ways, including the basic plot, which involves a team of paranormal investigators who have come to try to determine whether the house in question is truly haunted. Indeed, The Legend of Hell House reads almost like a more sensational and pop cultural remake of The Haunting, perhaps showing a bit of the influence of the Hammer Horror visual style (though Legend is not, itself, a Hammer film).
Among the many important developments in 1970s horror, Japanese horror really began to show its versatility with the 1978 film Hausu (“House”). Here, a gaggle of giggling Japanese schoolgirls go to spend summer vacation at the remote home of the aunt of one of the girls. But the aunt turns out to be some sort of ghoul and the house turns out to be demonically possessed, killing off the girls one by one. But that brief summary of the film’s completely banal plot does not begin to capture what this bizarre film is like. Many of the scenes look like crazy Japanese TV commercials, or maybe music videos. Indeed, director Nobuhiko Obayhashi had worked extensively in TV commercials before this film. Meanwhile, the strange visuals are accompanied by a whimsical and often upbeat soundtrack that is completely out of sync with the subject matter of the film. One reviewer called this one a “retarded hybrid of Rocky Horror and Whispering Corridors,” but it definitely has a style of its own and needs to be experienced on its own. Hausu well deserves the cult status it has gained since its release in American theaters in 2009.
It took that long for Hausu to have a big impact in America, though the original film was released at a time when American horror itself was about to experience a sort of Renaissance. The period from the release of Halloween in 1978 through the early years of the 1980s is known primarily for the slasher film explosion of that period, but other forms of horror were booming as well. In fact, American genre film as a whole was experiencing quite an upswing at this time. American science fiction film enjoyed a decade of unprecedented commercial success, beginning with the colossal triumph of Star Wars in 1977. The science fiction boom of this decade spilled into horror, including horror/science fiction crossovers like the first two Alien films and the first Terminator film. But supernatural horror got a boost from this phenomenon as well, beginning especially with The Amityville Horror in 1979. Based on Jay Anson’s 1977 novel, which was itself supposedly based on real events, The Amityville Horror (1979) was successful enough to become the founding film in a whole franchise, even though it’s really a pretty banal supernatural thriller, in retrospect. Here, the Lutz family moves into an old house whose previous owners were all murdered, maybe because the house itself is somehow evil, though the film seems a bit confused about the source of this evil. Apparently, the house was built on the site of an old Indian burial ground, à la Poltergeist a few years later. Or maybe it’s on the site of an old devil worship shrine; and maybe it’s somehow related to the phenomenon of Salem witchcraft. In any case, the evil forces in the house seem really hostile to Catholicism, as a Catholic priest (played by Rod Steiger), quickly finds out when he tries to help. The ineffectuality of priests is by now a staple of supernatural horror movies. Eventually, the family survives to flee the house (even managing to save the family dog), just as the forces in the house seem to be getting increasingly incensed at their presence.
The Amityville Horror was followed by a prequel, Amityville II: The Possession (1982), which is really more of a possession/exorcism film than a haunted house film, as its title indicates. In many ways, it has less to do with The Amityville Horror than with The Exorcist, but it’s a pretty bad film in any case, filled with lurid and cheesy special effects and not much else. Amityville 3-D in 1983 added some technological gimmickry, as the franchise continued to expand without distinction. But, even before this first sequel, haunted house films received a tremendous boost in 1980, with the release of two of the greatest such films of all time—starring two of the greatest actors of their generation. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, featuring Jack Nicholson, is discussed in detail here.. Meanwhile, Peter Medak’s Canadian film The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, was also released in 1980. Scott plays John Russell, a noted musician/composer whose wife and daughter are killed in an auto accident at the beginning of the film. Attempting to restart his life, he moves cross-country to Seattle to teach music theory at a local university. While there, he rents a huge old mansion from the local Historical Society. The mansion, of course, is haunted—by the spirit of a sickly young boy who was murdered there by his own father seventy years earlier—as part of a plot to secure a vast inheritance by substituting a healthy son for the sickly one. The ghost apparently feels Russell’s experiences might make him sympathetic, so it manifests itself to get his attention. It works, too, and Russell becomes obsessed with investigating the background of the ghost, uncovering the whole plot and leading to the demise of the substitute son, now a powerful senator who attempts to suppress the investigation but is overcome by the power of the ghost. Scott puts in his usual reliable performance, and there is lots of interesting stuff here, including some creepy moments in the haunted house, though these are tempered by the fact that the ghost is mostly sympathetic, if dangerous, until it finally loses patience in the end. The best part, though, is the underlying implication that the real horror haunting America is unscrupulous rich people, who might have acquired their wealth by nefarious, inappropriate means.
John Carpenter’s The Fog, also released in 1980, has no A-list stars (though Carpenter is an A-list horror director, and there are also some famous horror actors involved). It’s also a fine ghost story. It focuses on a California coastal town that was founded 100 years earlier using gold recovered from the wreck of a ship that the town’s six founders intentionally lured to its doom on the rocks off the coast just so they could recover the gold. Then, as it turns out, the gold was used to build the town church. The rest of the town had to build itself, while the local priest melted the remaining gold down and made it into a large gold cross. Now, 100 years later, the ghosts of the crew come ashore in the midst of a supernatural fog, seeking murderous revenge and also trying to get their gold back, which they finally do by obtaining the cross. The whole premise has the feel of a tall tale, as is indicated by the frame narrative in which an old sea captain (John Houseman) tells a ghost story (basically the story of the movie) to a group of boys around a campfire. It works, though, partly due to a number of small touches. Among other things, the film features both Jamie Lee Curtis and her mom Janet Leigh, though neither of them really has all that much to do. Town DJ Stevie Wayne (TV heartthrob Adrienne Barbeau, then Carpenter’s wife, in her first film role) is really more important. But, as it turns out, the most important character (though he doesn’t have as much screen time) is the current priest, the hard-drinking Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), who is the grandson of the priest involved in the original conspiracy. Finding his grandfather’s journal, he figures out what is going on and gives the cross to the ghosts, presumably appeasing them, though they also kill him (as well as five others, for a total of six, one for each of the original conspirators). Like many Carpenter films, this one is very watchable and is actually better than it sounds, even if it falls short of his best work. It was remade in 2005 (with Carpenter as a co-producer), with much less salubrious results.
1982 saw the release of the Steven Spielberg-produced (and co-written) Poltergeist, with which supernatural horror truly reached the commercial mainstream. Nominally helmed by Texas Chain Saw director Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist is nothing like that film, partly because of Spielberg’s influence. Indeed, it has long been rumored that Spielberg largely directed the film. In any case, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams play Steven and Diane Freeling, a suburban couple who live with their three kids in a planned development where the houses are nice enough, but bland. They’re also new, unlike the typical old haunted house. However, these new houses were also built on the site of an old graveyard, while the developer just left the buried corpses in place to save development costs and built right over them. And we all know what that leads to. Poltergeist contains some of the best-known scenes (and lines) in all of horror film. It also gains some scares from the threatened-child motif—especially the little girl who famously gets sucked into the TV. It also includes some potentially interesting commentary on the lack of respect for tradition on the part of capitalist modernity (and how that can come back to bite you in a kind of return of the repressed), though any simple allegorical reading of the film is complicated by the fact that the spirits from the graveyard (and their boss, the Beast) seem to use television (that ultimate tool of capitalist modernity) as their favorite portal into this world. One message is clear, though: television is evil—and apparently there was a reason why your parents didn’t want you to sit too close to the set.
The Entity (made in 1981 but not released until 1983, and supposedly based on a true story) is an unusual haunted house film in all sorts of ways. For one thing, the haunting takes place in a very modest lower-middle-class home, rather than in a vast old mansion. For another, though the “entity” of the title is never really identified, the film hints that it is a visitor from another dimension, rather than a ghost or other supernatural creature, meaning that The Entity might also be regarded as science fiction. It is also particularly sexually explicit, as the eponymous entity is mainly interested in attacking (and raping) protagonist Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), though there is never any explanation for why such an entity would be interested in sex with human women. Then again, it seems mainly interested in dominating, humiliating, and terrifying Moran rather than in actual sex—which of course makes the whole motif a rather explicit allegorization of rape in general. Meanwhile, the choice of Moran (a single mother who is identified early on as a strong, independent woman who does things her own way without relying on the help of men) is interesting as well, making the entity a sort of Reagan-era fantasy of revenge against the threat posed by such women—and making the film a critique of such fantasies (which, of course, are alive and well today). The entity proves too much for various earthly experts to manage (even with high-tech science fictional equipment), but Moran keeps it under control to some extent by simply standing up to it and refusing to be humiliated, whatever it does to her. That’s meant to be a positive, pro-feminist ending, I think, though it does suggest that rape is easier to deal with than it really is.
The Keep (1983) is notable primarily as an early effort of director Michael Mann and for an amazing cast that includes such luminaries as Ian McKellen, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, and Scott Glenn. It also features impressive visuals and an effective electronic soundtrack from Tangerine Dream. The story, though, is something of a mess. Nazis roll into a Romanian village in 1941 and occupy the nearby ancient castle, thereby awakening an evil supernatural entity that has been imprisoned there for hundreds of years. The entity then contrives to try to escape the confines of the castle so it can take over the world, but Glenn’s character, a supernatural hero figure, arrives in the nick of time and locks it safely back down. Mostly, though, the narrative is pretty incoherent, as the film careens from one scene to another with little in the way of connecting logic. Luckily, the scenes themselves are interesting enough to make The Keep highly watchable.
Supernatural horror experienced a bit of slowdown in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, but the ghost story The Sixth Sense was all the rage when it was released in 1999, seeming to announce M. Night Shyamalan as the next great horror director. It’s a gimmick film, though, and as such it has not retained its status, given that it has diminished appeal for audiences who already know the trick. But it is also shot through with a streak of sentimentality that, in retrospect, probably did not bode well for Shyamalan’s future as a horror director. Still, it’s a cleverly constructed film in which most viewers, unless alerted beforehand, would not realize that Bruce Willis’s Malcolm Crowe goes through most of the film dead but unaware of it. In some ways, what is most impressive about the film is how obvious it is that Crowe is dead on repeat viewings without spoiling that first viewing. But what is really impressive is the Oscar-nominated performance of young Haley Joel Osment as the nine-year-old boy who “sees dead people” and whom Crowe, a child psychologist when alive, helps to cope with his condition as a “freak.”
Stir of Echoes (1999) is a relatively big-budget (but also rather pedestrian) horror thriller loosely based on a 1958 novel by Richard Matheson. It got far less attention than did The Sixth Sense, however, partly because it was so overshadowed by that film in terms of popular buzz.In Stir of Echoes, Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a telephone lineman in Chicago, who suddenly has his latent psychic powers activated by a posthypnotic suggestion. Then he starts having visions and dreams that eventually drive him to start digging up his yard and destroying his house, until he finally finds the body of a teenage girl, murdered a year earlier in the townhouse he now occupies, who has been contacting him from beyond the grave. Then Witzky almost gets killed by one of the killers (and the killer’s dad), but the dad of the other killer kills them instead. As the films ends, Witzky’s family drives away to a new home, his young son (who has inherited his psychic powers) being tormented by the thoughts (presumably of both the dead and the living) that he hears all around him.
What Lies Beneath (2000) is another mainstream Hollywood ghost story, this time featuring A-list actors Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford in the lead roles, which accounts for the fact that it was a commercial success despite being something of a mess. Here, Ford plays brilliant genetics professor Norman Spencer, while Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer, a once-brilliant musician who gave up her career to try to be the perfect wife to Norman. Norman, though, being a professor, is deeply flawed. As the plot unfolds, we learn that he had once an affair with a student, whom he subsequently murdered—and whose ghost may or may not be haunting the Spencers. When Claire learns of that murder, Norman tries to murder her as well, but she is (possibly) saved by the ghost of the student. What Lies Beneath is clearly not all that interested in its own ghost-story plot, though, and seems to want to be more of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller—as evidenced by the liberal echoes of Rear Window that are built into the first half of the film. Director Robert Zemeckis, though, is no Hitchcock, and What Lies Beneath never really rises to its potential.
Smaller-scale supernatural ghost stories also made a mark at the beginning of the new century, with efforts such as Brad Anderson’s Session 9 (2001), an extremely effective atmospheric psychological thriller that combines the slasher film with a chilling ghost story. It’s also a real movie, not just a bloodbath, with real characters and a real story that addresses some real issues. The atmosphere is provided largely by the setting in a huge abandoned mental asylum, founded in the 1870s but closed in the 1980s in the midst of the Reagan-era budget cuts, as well as a major lawsuit from the family of a patient whose “repressed memories” of satanic rituals, recovered during treatment at the asylum and very damning to the family, turned out (apparently) to be false. The film was shot in the actual Danvers State Hospital of Danvers, Massachusetts, a facility that has a rich and strange history of its own. The basic story of the film involves a cleanup crew that is hired to rid the huge facility of its asbestos so that it can be reopened as the new headquarters of the local government. It’s one of the few American movies that actually deals centrally with work, as we see the crew in the midst of the job through much of the film. And we get to know the workers and their problems, especially the boss, Gordon Fleming (Peter Mullan), who has (as we eventually learn), been under considerable personal pressure at home and financial pressure with the cleanup company, which is on the verge of going under when they get the job to clean up the asylum. Though he is the boss and owner of the company, Fleming is very much a working-class character, who works right alongside his men and lives in very modest circumstances. David Caruso plays Phil, Gordon’s right-hand man, while Stephen Gevedon plays Mike, a law-school dropout who serves somewhat as the group’s intellectual. Meanwhile, there is tension within the group because another worker, Hank (Josh Lucas), has recently stolen Phil’s girlfriend. In order to get this job, Gordon has promised to get the cleanup done in an unreasonably short time, so the entire crew works under pressure—with the promise of a bonus if they succeed.
Unfortunately, things gradually unravel, partly due to the tension between Phil and Hank, and partly because Mike discovers some old files and tapes of patient interviews and begins spending most of his time studying those. In particular, he becomes fascinated with the case of Mary Hobbes, Patient 444, from 1974. Mary seems to have suffered from multiple personality disorder, which had been central to her commitment to the facility after murdering her entire family when she was still quite young, though the exact details of her case remain vague. In particular, one of her apparent personalities, known as “Simon,” seems to have been the principal force behind her turn to murder, but the film also leaves open the possibility that Simon may be some sort of malignant spirit who possessed Mary and who now continues to haunt the asylum. As Simon tells the doctor on the tape listened to by Mike, “I live in the weak and the wounded.”
Simon, in fact, may be central to the breakdown that leads Gordon to murder the rest of the crew (and apparently his wife and infant daughter as well). Or it might simply be that Gordon was already unstable and that the creepy atmosphere of the asylum has driven him over the edge. There are lots of serious issues here concerning things such as the collapse of the American mental health system in the 1980s and the economic pressures that constantly weigh down on working-class individuals and families. This thing completely tanked at the box-office, possibly partly because it was released just before the 9/11 bombings, which left people in no mood for such a film, though it wasn’t doing well even before that. It’s really very good, though, and has gained something of a following over the past decade. Highly recommended.
2001 also saw the release of Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s English-language film The Others (2001), an extremely well made, brooding, atmospheric ghost story involving small children and a central plot “trick.” Something like The Innocents meets The Sixth Sense, The Others stars Nicole Kidman as the mother who lives with her two small children in a spooky mansion on the isle of Jersey, when they are all seemingly threatened by a family of ghosts. Then they hire some new servants, but they all turn out to be ghosts as well. Then to top matters off, the mother and children turn out actually to be ghosts, and the other family turns out to be the ones being haunted. The plot is lame and Kidman’s performance is overwrought, yet the film nevertheless manages to be very effective and occasionally even scary (there’s a moment when the mother confuses her daughter and one of the “others” that is guaranteed to produce a few chills), largely because Amenábar does an excellent job of creating a slowly building mood of dread. There’s also some Nazi material (Jersey was occupied by the Nazis during WWII, and the children’s father was killed in the war), but that never really comes to much. More style than substance, but still one of the better haunted-house films out there.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (also released in 2001) is another Spanish ghost story that features a visually striking ghost but that otherwise lacks most of the visual flair we have come to associate with del Toro’s. It makes up for that lack in other ways, though. In particular, this is a film that does an especially good job of using the ghost story as a mode of commentary on the historical past—something the subgenre should be perfectly suited for, even if few films do it well. Here, the literal ghost is that of a small boy killed in the fascist bombing of a Spanish orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, but the real ghost is the Civil War itself, and the film provides abundant haunting reminders of that dark moment in Spanish (and world) history, when the Western powers stood idly by while Spain was overrun by fascist forces, opening the way for the broader fascist expansionism that led to World War II.
In a more conventional horror film mode, The Ring (2002) is big-time, (relatively) big-budget Hollywood horror, featuring some heavyweight talents. For one thing, it was the last film directed by Gore Verbinski before he moved into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. For another, it was the first film featuring Naomi Watts after her spectacular performance in Mulholland Drive had propelled her to stardom. The film itself is well made and highly watchable, especially when Watts is on the screen, which luckily is most of the time. On the other hand, The Ring is nothing special as a film, partly because its whole premise is a bit muddled, confusing, and not very believable. Basically, a little girl on an island is so evil that her own mother kills her by dumping her down a well, after which the dead girl takes revenge by somehow making a weird video tape that causes anyone who watches it to die seven days later. Maybe this is why no one watches video tape anymore. Anyway, Watts’s character is a newspaper reporter who views the tape early on, then spends the rest of the film using her investigative skills to uncover the secret behind the tape. She manages to save herself and her son (by making copies of the tape and passing the curse on to others, which is about as believable as anything else in the film), but this is a film that depends more on atmosphere and visuals (and Watts’s performance) than on plot.
The Ring is a remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, and it was successful enough at the box office (it made $250 million worldwide, off a budget of $48 million) that American remakes of Japanese horror films became a thing for a while, including The Grudge (2004, with Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Dark Water (2005, with Jennifer Connolly). Of these, the former was more successful, helping to inspire a whole Grudge franchise. This franchise, of course, looks back to Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), which is probably both scarier and just plain better than the American remake, though not greatly so, perhaps because the remake, produced by Sam Raimi, has the unusual distinction of being directed by Takashi Shimuzu, director of the Japanese original. The Japanese ghost mythology seems a bit more coherent in the original, though the ghosts themselves look and sound pretty much the same in both versions, which means they both look and sound pretty scary. The American version is even set in Japan. The biggest difference between the two versions is probably that the American film tries to foreground the character played by Gellar (American exchange student Karen Davis), while the Japanese film foregrounds the ghosts themselves, featuring a whole series of characters who are of roughly equal importance, which, again, is more consistent with the mythology, which has to do with those suffering horrific deaths becoming vengeful ghosts who visit such deaths on others, who then become vengeful ghosts who visit such deaths on others, and so on, in an ongoing series.
Despite trying to highlight Gellar’s character (and to cash in on her considerable post-Buffy horror cred) The Grudge (2004) doesn’t really give Davis all that much to do. Mainly, she just looks on as weird happenings (including periodic appearances by a strange dead little boy, his evil dead father, and his really creepy dead mother) kill off inhabitants of and even visitors to a Japanese house that is haunted by the legacy of an enraged husband murdering his wife and child, then killing himself, a few years earlier. This one definitely has some scary visuals, including the weird jerky movement of the ghosts, since widely imitated, though it is built on particularly Japanese ghost mythologies, meaning that it probably made more sense in the Japanese original. As it is, it’s a bit nonsensical, and can be plodding, but it’s not awful. It also has a cliffhanger ending in which the murdered woman’s ghost may be about to possess and/or kill Davis, but of course we have to wait for the sequel to find out.
That sequel, The Grudge 2 (2006), was also directed by Shimizu, but was less successful than its progenitor, both commercially and critically. Alas, Davis does get killed by the ghost early in the film, leaving her younger sister Aubrey (Amber Tamblyn) to carry the rest of the film. Aubrey, though, doesn’t survive the film, either. Japanese ghosts are pretty deadly. The Grudge 3 (2009), directed by Toby Wilkins, continued the downward slide of the franchise and was released directly to video. A series of Japanese sequels to Ju-On has also been released, including Ju-On: The Beginning of the End (2014), intended as a reboot of the franchise, which also includes a number of novels and manga. A reboot of the American franchise, still produced by Raimi but now set in America, is scheduled for 2020.
Back in America, 1408 (2007), directed by Mikael Håfström, is a haunted hotel movie based on a story by Stephen King, which I suppose makes it a sort of followup to The Shining. Here, John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a writer who investigates and writes about paranormal phenomena—in which he doesn’t really believe. However, when he checks into a supposedly “evil” room (the room 1408 of the title) in a New York hotel, all hell literally breaks loose. And that’s part of the problem. For about half an hour, during the setup, this film is quite good. And, once Enslin gets in the room and it starts to wreak havoc on him, there’s certainly a lot of action. A little too much, in fact, not much of which is really all that believable, though the film does rightly point to the basic spookiness of hotel rooms, on which it builds. There’s no time for anticipation as Enslin deals with nonstop threats, though Cusack is pretty good at making Enslin a sympathetic central character with whom we can identify. Still, in the terminology often used for the genre, this film quickly becomes all “horror” proper (reaction to shocking events) and no “terror” (fear in anticipation of potential shocking events). Meanwhile, its Inception-like attempts to entangle different levels of reality doesn’t help much. Samuel L. Jackson is effectively mysterious as hotel manager Gerald Olin, though his exact relation to the evil room is unclear. He seems here almost like a Satan figure, the overseer of the room, though in the original version of the film he seemed more like an enemy of the room. (In the original cut, Enslin was killed in the room, though he takes it down with him, leaving Olin to carry the denouement; bad audience reaction caused a change to a “happy” ending in which Enslin defeats the room and escapes, leaving Olin nothing to do.)
Lake Mungo (2008) is an unusual Australian ghost story that has gained something of a cult following in recent years. Presented as a documentary concerning the drowning of teenager Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) and its aftermath, the film concerns the grasping attempts of her family to find evidence of the ongoing existence of Alice’s ghost in their house. Ultimately, though, the only ghost detected (prior to the ending credits) is one that turns out to have been detected by Alice herself shortly before her death—as a sort of premonition of that death. The film really deals more with the grief of the living than with manifestations of the dead, and it does so effectively enough to have drawn a number of rave reviews.
Co-produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) is a variant on the haunted house story in which a crumbled mansion is haunted not by ghosts, but by faeries. But these are ugly, vicious, scurrying, rat-like faeries that you definitely don’t want to meet in the dark. Based on a 1973 television movie of the same title (in which the house is infested with goblins), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has some of the visual flair for which del Toro is so well known, though its look no doubt also owes a great deal to its director, comic book artist Troy Nixie. Much of the film is focused on the attempts of the faeries to lure ten-year-old Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) into their lair beneath the mansion being renovated by her father, Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend, designer Kim Raphael (Katie Holmes). Much of its scariness thus results from the motif of the threatened-child-whom-no-one-will-believe that has worked so often in horror films. This film definitely has its moments, even though it ultimately fails to produce anything special with its unusual mythological materials, which were derived from the horror stories of Arthur Machen (who is, in fact, hat-tipped within the film itself).
The Awakening (2011) is a reasonably effective old-style British haunted-house movie. In fact, it’s set back in 1921, just after years of wars and disease had caused so many deaths that there was a dramatic increase in the ghost population, or so the film would suggest. Oddly enough, though, the ghost of the film was killed many years earlier, but the suggestion of a recent increase in the ghost population is not entirely gratuitous because the film’s protagonist, ahead-of-her-time liberated woman Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), is a scientist who has made a name for herself by debunking various recent reports of hauntings. (In the process of her work, she has to overcome not only charlatans who fake hauntings to make money, but also things like overbearing males who suspect that she may be insane because her woman’s brain can’t handle all the education she has stuffed into it.) In the film she is called to a boarding school where there have been several ghost sightings. The ghost there turns out to be real, of course, and we gradually learn that the boarding school had once been Cathcart’s childhood home—until her father was driven nuts by his nagging wife, subsequently killing her and himself with a shotgun. In the process, he also attempted to kill young Florence but missed and instead killed her half-brother, an illegitimate child whose existence was the source of the mother’s nagging. Anyway, Cathcart has suppressed memories of all this, but they come back in the process of hunting this ghost, which turns out, of course, to be the half-brother. It’s all a bit slow and predictable, but Hall’s performance is terrific, which makes it more than watchable. And it definitely has a couple of scary moments.
James Watkins’ The Woman in Black (2012) is an interesting ghost story that features the attempts of struggling solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) to make sense of the papers left by the recently-deceased owner of the most haunted-looking house you ever saw. Set around 1910 (and based on a 1983 novel by Susan Hill), The Woman in Black is a stylish evocation of Edwardian England. It can also be quite spooky at times, though it contributes relatively little that is new to the ghost-story genre—the house itself, the superstitious (and hostile) locals, and the fleeting glimpses of ghosts have all been done many times. The film does have an interesting “happy” ending, though.
Andy Muschietti’s Mama (2013) got a lot of buzz when it was originally released, partly because it was executive-produced by del Toro. And it certainly is stylish, though it could be conceived as misogynistic with all the devouring mother imagery. Nevertheless, it manages to be one of the creepiest and scariest films of recent years, punctuated by some genuine spine-tingling moments. It’s largely a collection of clichés, both thematically and visually, but they’re pretty effective clichés, and it’s definitely interesting to look at—though it really looks less like something from del Toro than like a Japanese horror film made by someone heavily influenced by Tim Burton. Lots of waving tentacles of hair and dark shapes moving suddenly and jerkily, that sort of thing. And moths. Possibly the most original visual effect has to do with putting actress Jessica Chastain in a short black wig, heavy eye-liner, and tattoo sleeve, which transforms her into a hard-edged rocker chick. But then her interaction with the film’s two little girls (lost in the woods at ages 1 and 3, then raised there for five years by the ghost of a crazy woman who lost her baby more than a century earlier) brings out her nurturing side, allowing her to at least save one of the little girls from the ghostly title character. It sounds lame, but it’s definitely better than your average horror film, even if it fails to address larger social issues in the way the best horror films do, other than (very) vaguely suggesting that there might be some problems with our social services system for the care of orphaned or abused children. You’d have to work some, but I suppose you could also find some general commentary here on the way childhood can be genuinely frightening, with children so often at the mercy of forces larger than themselves, with far less in the way of legal rights and protections than are typically afforded to adults. Mostly, though, it’s just a scary entertainment.
Del Toro himself returned to the ghost story form with Crimson Peak (2015), which features some of the most visually gruesome ghosts ever put on film. The ghosts, though, are relatively benevolent and mainly just issue warnings. The real villains are a live (and very incestuous) brother-and-sister team (played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who prey on a series of innocent young women, including (in the case of the main plot of the film), a wealthy American woman, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). Chastain, one of the most important actresses in twenty-first-century horror, does the Goth thing very well, in a sort of evil version of her character in Mama. Anyway, the brother marries Edith and lures her back to the preposterously Gothic home he shares with his sister in England. The plan is to get her money to help finance the brother’s contraption for mining clay, but that sounds much more down-to-earth than the film really is. But this is Gothic romance, rather than true horror, so the brother falls in love with Edith and helps her escape alive (though he doesn’t). As one would expect from del Toro, there are lots of fascinating visuals in this one, but much of the film doesn’t really make sense.
Ivan Kavanaugh’s The Canal (2014) is an Irish horror film that more than makes up for a somewhat nonsensical plot with loads of creepy atmosphere. Here, young David and Alice) (Rupert Evans and Hannah Hoekstra) move into a creaky old house that turns out to have been the scene of some gruesome events over the years. Things go fine for a while, though, until David discovers that Alice is having an affair and then she turns up dead soon afterward. David is suspected, then cleared, then suspected again, and he begins to unravel psychologically as the film proceeds. Indeed, this film is another example of the Todorov’s “fantastic,” because it is never entirely clear whether the strange events of the film are a result of David’s worsening psychological state or whether they are genuinely supernatural. Then the film appears to veer into the marvelous, but only in it very last moments.
The spate of highly intelligent supernatural horror films in the 2010s also inspired a number of imitations that were not so intelligent. Blumhouse’s Ouija (2014), for example, draws upon the popular Ouija board (which shows up in many horror films, perhaps most famously in The Exorcist). It seems to have very few original ideas, though it made a lot of money. Which is why it is not surprising that a 2015 prequel film, Ouija: Origin of Evil, was made. What is surprising is that the prequel is actually much more original, perhaps because the prequel was directed by Mike Flanagan, one of the hottest young directors in contemporary horror film. Once again, a Ouija board is crucial to communication with ghosts (this time of concentration camp prisoners tortured to death by a Nazi mad scientist). This time, though, there are very clear and specific echoes of The Exorcist, (a priest tries—and fails—to save the day, a possessed little girl does a gravity-defying spider walk) which helps to solidify the Ouija-board connection to that film.But perhaps the most interesting part of this film is its visual style. Set in 1967, it employs a style and color palette that strongly evoke that period, making the film much more interesting to watch than it might otherwise have been.
Another recent Ouija board film that has gotten considerable attention is Verónica (2017), from Spanish director Paco Plaza (best known for the REC zombie films(along with Jaume Balagueró). Significantly better than the Blumhouse Ouija films, Verónica profits from a terrific performance by Sandra Escacena as a fifteen-year-old Madrid girl who participates in a séance with a Ouija board during a full solar eclipse. Bad idea. Verónica is trying to contact her recently deceased father, but instead inadvertently unleashes a demon. This one suffers from a lack of originality in places, but it can definitely be scary at times and is made more so by the fact that Verónica and her three younger siblings are constantly being threatened by the demons. It also gains some traction from supposedly being based on real events, though it is only loosely so (as is perhaps signaled by the fact that some of the key events occur on Friday the 13th in June 1991, even though June 13, 1991, was a Thursday).
One particularly stylish recent ghost story is Lights Out (2016), which features a deadly ghost with no tolerance for light (she’d been allergic to light even when alive), so that she can only attack her victims in the dark. There’s a convoluted back story involving suicide and depression—and a shocking ending in which a woman commits suicide to disable the ghost (because she had been the tether connecting the ghost to our world). This one requires a bit more suspension of disbelief than even the usual ghost story, but it is unusually well made and highly watchable if you don’t try to make too much sense of it all. It grossed nearly $150 million off of a budget of less than $5 million, making it another of many recent horror movies to have huge profit ratios—thus providing a practical explanation for the current boom in horror film production, but also suggesting that there must be something about the current zeitgeist that makes horror particularly attractive to mass audiences.
Witches and Witchcraft
Witches, in horror films, take a variety of forms. For one thing, while witches are almost always female, there are some cases in which they are male, though male witches are generally referred to as warlocks. In some films—such as the much-maligned The Covenant (2006)—there is little or no distinction between warlocks and male witches. Warlock films have certainly been less successful than films about witches, though the 1989 entry Warlock was successful enough to inspire sequels in 1993 and 1999.
Perhaps the classic warlock film, however, is The Haunted Palace (1963), one of the numerous collaborations between director Roger Corman and star Vincent Price, though this one is notable for also featuring Lon Chaney, Jr., in a supporting role. This one may, however, be most interesting for the way it was marketed (by AIP, over Corman’s objections) as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace in an attempt to cash in on the success of the other Corman-Price Poe adaptations, even though this one was actually based on a story by H. P. Lovecraft (then presumably a less marketable name, though that has probably changed by now). The film did take its title from a Poe poem, however. In any case, this one is fairly banal stuff, as Price returns to the small New England town of Arkham as the great-great-grandson of a warlock burned there at the stake a hundred years earlier. Price’s character, Charles Dexter Ward, is soon possessed by the spirit of his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and immediately sets out trying to get revenge on the town. Chaney, meanwhile, plays his loyal retainer, who somehow has been alive all this time, caretaking the titular family palace (which nevertheless looks pretty spooky and rundown) in preparation for his return. In the end, the palace is burned and the villagers triumph (with the aid of Ward’s wife Anne, played by Debra Paget). Or do they? The aging Chaney is still very good as the creepy-but-sad servant, but Price’s performance is the centerpiece here. This may not be one of his better films, but it nicely illustrates his ability to be effectively scary even as he self-consciously parodied himself and his spooky on-screen image. It’s not always entirely clear that Price is in on the joke when his films turn into self-parody, but here he very obviously is.
There also a variety of films concerning practitioners of magic who are not identified as witches, but who have powers similar to those often displayed by witches in films. These include a variety of films featuring wizards, including such high-profile franchises as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.Magical powers (especially the ability to apply curses) are also sometimes attributed to those from other cultures, including a variety of movies involving Caribbean voo-doo or gypsy curses.
At least as far back as The Wizard of Oz (1939), witches in films can be either good or bad. In this film (and in a number of others) good witches are coded as beautiful (often blonde) and bad witches as ugly (often dark). Witches of either the good or the evil persuasion can be seductive, though the bad ones generally lure men to their doom. In I Married a Witch (1942), a beautiful (good) witch turns out to make a fine wife, though not without a few romantic comedy twists and turns. Often, however, marriages between mortal men and witches are a bit more problematic.
Burn, Witch, Burn (1962) is the U.S. title of the British film Night of the Eagle, though it’s a film with lofty American writing credentials, being based on a novel by Fritz Leiber with a screenplay by Twilight Zone writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. It features Peter Wyngarde as sociology professor Norman Taylor, a man so British his entire body is stiff, not just his upper lip. Anyway, much of his teaching seems to involve the debunking of superstitions about things like witchcraft, so he is rather taken aback when he finds that much of his considerable professional success seems to have been enabled by the mumbo jumbo conjured up by his witchcraft-practicing wife. So he gathers all her witchy accoutrements and destroys them, which (of course) causes all hell to break loose. His devoted wife (played by Janet Blair) tries to save him by sacrificing herself, to which he responds by trying to save her, but it’s all complicated by the spells being cast by the wife of an academic rival to try to get Taylor out of the way. And then there’s a stone eagle that comes alive and an awful lot of hurrying about, but the Taylors apparently emerge victorious at the end. It’s actually fun in places and certainly can be read as an allegorical lampoon of academic rivalry and in-fighting, though it oddly seems to place most of that sort of dirty business in the hands of academic wives, rather than the academics themselves, who are mostly just pawns in the hands of their witchy wives. Best part is the opening voiceover in which Paul Frees (seemingly trying for all the world to sound like Orson Welles) intones a spell to protect the audience from the evil that is to follow. There are two American films based on the same Leiber novel (Conjure Wife): Weird Woman (1944) and the more comical Witches’ Brew (1980).
Other British witchcraft film have more specific roots in either British history or British folk horror. Witchfinder General (1968), for example, is a history-based account of witch-hunting during the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century. This film is genuinely horrifying and clearly sympathizes with those being hunted (as well as providing a nice reminder that some of the most horrific things in Western history have generally been done in the name of Christianity). In the U.S., incidentally, this film was released as “The Conqueror Worm,” taking its title from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, in an attempt to link it to AIP’s earlier Vincent Price Poe cycle, though this one is not really related to any of Poe’s writings. It’s also an interesting performance by Price as Matthew Hopkins as the witchhunter of the title, ruthlessly trying to root out and execute witches, while trying to score with a few comely maidens along the way. Price is superb as the pompous-but-smarmy Hopkins, though he doesn’t really dominate the film as he sometimes does, spending long segments off the screen while Keith Carradine lookalike Ian Ogilvy gets most of the screen time as Richard Marshall, Hopkins’s eventual nemesis. Hilary Dwyer is quite good as Sara Lowes, Marshall’s love interest and one of the victims of Hopkins in his roles as both sexual predator and sadistic torturer. Indeed, the final scene in which Sara is tortured by having an icepick repeatedly plunged into her back is pretty powerful even now (in the heyday of torture porn horror films) and was considered absolutely shocking in 1968. Price makes Hopkins completely despicable (just as he should), in an excellent, if unusual performance. He also shows himself as particularly adept at the time-honored Hollywood practice of creating the illusion of a British accent by simply speaking priggishly and pretentiously. In any case, while the historical details aren’t always accurate, this reminder that the most horrifying things imaginable have already actually been done in reality is definitely worth a look. The production values are quite high by AIP standards, and it’s quite a good historical drama, horror film or not. It was quite successful and triggered a new cycle of AIP horror films featuring Price, made in Britain and without Roger Corman, who was by then off doing his own thing.
George Romero’s Season of the Witch (1972) gives witchcraft the low-key, realistic treatment that Romero would later give to vampirism in Martin (1978). Romero made this film quickly and on a low budget, but then experienced difficulties with the distributor, who recut it and marketed it as soft-core porn under the title Hungry Wives. Luckily, Romero was finally able to get the film released with his original vision and with its current title, taken from Donovan’s 1966 hit song, which is also included within the film. In the film, Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bored, unfulfilled, unappreciated suburban wife whose husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) is a blustering, posturing boor whose favorite move is to threaten to “kick some ass.” Joan turns to the study of witchcraft to try to find some meaning in her life; she is eventually initiated into a coven, though it is not at all clear that the witches have any actual supernatural power. Joan also doesn’t get much of a boost from a brief fling with a local college teacher who has also been having a fling with Jack and Joan’s nineteen-year-old daughter. (Her seduction of the teacher might possibly have been furthered by magic, but that isn’t clear either.) In any case, Joan’s eventual empowerment comes only when she shoots and kills Jack, thinking he is an intruder after he unexpectedly returns early from a business trip. Not the best-looking or best-acted film ever, Season nevertheless delivers a pretty strong feminist message. And includes a clever allusion to Rosemary’s Baby.
Perhaps the greatest of all witchcraft films (at least in an aesthetic sense) was produced in neither the U.S. nor the U.K., but in Italy, where Maria Brava’s Suspiria (1977) is perhaps the greatest single horror film ever produced in that country (which has quite a rich horror film tradition). Here, a young American woman, Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), travels to Germany to study at a dance academy that turns out to be the home of a mysterious coven of witches. Much more interested in creating atmosphere through spectacular and richly-colored visuals (enhanced by a notable progressive rock soundtrack supplied by the band Goblin) than in the actual narrative, Suspiria has achieved near legendary status over the years. Suspiria was remade by Luca Guadagnino in 2018; the excellent remake adds some elements (such as German guilt over the Nazi past) and uses dance more effectively as an element of the film than did the original. That it received such mixed responses from critics is partly a testament to its own strangeness and partly a testament to the towering achievement of the original, which it doesn’t quite match in overall impact.
Superstition (made in 1982, but not released until 1985) is an American film that shows a strong influence of Italian horror films, especially in the bloody special effects. Here, a witch, executed (by Catholics, for some reason) for practicing witchcraft in Salem in 1692, returns in the modern world to wreak revenge on the descendants of her original tormentors, almost in slasher-film fashion. In any case, the witch is unequivocally identified as an evil minion of Satan and the revenge is particularly bloody, involving things like chopping off a guy’s head, then microwaving it until it explodes. Or closing a window sash on a guy trying to climb out the window, cutting him in two and leaving the two halves wriggling about after death. The revenge particularly focuses on a family that moves into a house haunted by the witch, making this a sort of haunted house story as well. Indeed, this one seems very confused about just what kind of film it actually is. This is not one of those movies that treats witchcraft as a mode of feminine empowerment; it’s mostly here just a mode for producing gory visuals.
Witches plot to conquer the world in Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), which really has nothing to do with the first two Halloween films, though it has everything to do with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s even set in the small (fictional) California town of Santa Mira, as was Body Snatchers. Now, though, rather than alien seed pod replicants, the plot involves Gaelic witches and their army of robot drones, who plan to zap lots of kids with special Halloween masks (each laced with a chunk of magic rock from Stonehenge), simultaneously releasing hordes of poisonous insects, spiders, and snakes, spreading death throughout the world in a massive blood sacrifice that will help initiate a new era of human history dominated by witchcraft. Meanwhile, Doctor Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) seeks to derail the plot, aided by the beautiful Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin). Of course, he (like Dr. Miles Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers)has trouble getting anyone to listen, and even Ellie gets replaced by a robot replicant and has to be violently dismantled. The film ends as Challis cries out, hoping to get someone to listen before it’s too late and the evil TV jingle of Silver Shamrock Novelty Company can ignite the masks. This is all pretty ridiculous, of course, but also pretty fun, especially if you recognize the parallels with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the meantime, the machinations of Silver Shamrock can also be taken as a commentary on the efforts of consumer capitalism, aided by television advertising, to take over our minds and turn us into robots. The whole plot doesn’t make much sense, and the film as a whole has little to do with the original Halloween, though Challis does catch a glimpse of that film as it plays on TV on Halloween. The film also doesn’t really do that much with witchcraft, though its mixture of modern robotics and ancient magic is rather interesting, and it does at least indicate the variety of films that have appeared with witchcraft as an important component. It reads more like a sort of undeveloped version of John Carpenter’s later great science fiction satire They Live (1988). Carpenter, incidentally, co-produced Halloween III, though the film was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace.
One of the highest-profile witchcraft films ever to appear was George Miller’s The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a big-budget production based on a novel by John Updike. The Witches of Eastwick is also largely comical, but it actually does make such a contribution to the legacy of witchcraft in film. In particular, this film suggests that the power of witchcraft can be liberating to women who have been forced to repress their desires under modern patriarchal society, allowing them to express both their sexuality and their creativity in ways that had been hitherto impossible. Of course, the film is particularly effective in this sense because of its extremely strong cast, including Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who play the three eponymous witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie. Trapped in boring and unfulfilling lives in the Rhode Island town of Eastwick, the three women suddenly have their lives invigorated by the appearance of one Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson), a Satanic figure who introduces them all to a new world of sensual pleasures, causing so much jealousy and animosity among the locals that the women decide to break off their relationship with Daryl. He tries to force them to stay, but by this time they have gained enough magical power under his tutelage that they defeat him in a final standoff. On the other hand, he has also by this time impregnated them all, and the film’s code reveals that all three infant boys are beginning to show the influence of their Satanic father, despite the fact that he has seemingly been banished.
The Witches of Eastwick is no Rosemary’s Baby, though, and Nicholson’s bravura turn as Daryl makes him seem more mischievous than evil. Indeed, Nicholson pretty much steals the film (despite its Girl Power theme) in an outrageous performance that seems almost a rehearsal for his turn as the Joker a few years later, with echoes of his performance as Jack Torrance a few years earlier. The film is, in fact, primarily a comedy. Itwas also successful enough to contribute to the appearance of a wave of witchcraft movies over the next decade or so. Some of the films that appeared during this period were not really horror films at all, such as Disney’s Hocus-Pocus (1993), a film that features lots of horror iconography, from Salem witchhunts, to zombies, to Halloween celebrations. It also features lots of witches, but only comical ones. The whole thing is entertaining enough, in its own way, but it makes little or no real contribution to the tradition of horror films about witches.
The comic aspects of The Witches of Eastwick, incidentally, are not unusual in films about witches, who are often cast in a rather lighthearted mode. One thinks, for example, of the Disneyfied witchcraft of Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), which is used (of all things) to defeat a platoon of invading Nazis in England. Even evil witches can be comical in popular culture, of course, as in Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990). Based on a novel by Roald Dahl, this film contains the typical Dahl motif of a story nominally designed for children that nevertheless contains a number of extremely dark elements—including a bevy of fiercely evil witches who are dedicated to doing in children—such as by lacing candies with a potion that will turn any children who eat them into mice.
Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996) has become something of a teen cult classic, though it was actually fairly successful in its initial theatrical run as well. It draws upon the ensemble-cast motif used so successfully in The Witches of Eastwick, but applies it to teen girls—though the girls here lack the feminine solidarity of the Eastwick ensemble. The Craft features a group of three outsider teenage girls who dabble in witchcraft, then get really into witchcraft when they are joined by a fourth girl, who is a “natural witch” and whose powers greatly enhance their own. There’s a certain celebration of outsiders and of female empowerment as the girls’ abilities grow, but The Craft seems to have a bit of trouble deciding exactly what message it is trying to deliver. For one thing, the girls use their powers mostly for pranks and petty revenge against those who have slighted them. For another, the girls spend much of their time fighting among themselves. There are some funny moments, but things get more serious when people begin to die. Meanwhile, the new girl, Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), remains an outsider among outsiders and never quite fits in with the group, leading eventually to a magical showdown in which the leader of the group, Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) is defeated by Sarah, stripped of her powers, and apparently driven insane, confined to restraints in a mental asylum. The other two girls, Bonnie Harper and Rochelle Zimmerman (Neve Campbell and Rachel True), also lose their powers (for misusing them) and are spurned by Sarah. Campbell plays a secondary character in this one, but she would rise to horror stardom in Scream, released seven months later.
Practical Magic (1998) used the feminine solidarity motif more effectively, though the there are only two central witches here, the sisters Sally and Gillian Owens, played by A-list Hollywood stars Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Sally and Gillian have to overcome a family curse, the prejudices of the locals in their small Massachusetts town, and Gillian’s abusive boyfriend, but they emerge triumphant, not only because they stick together but because they rally the other women of the town to their cause. On the other hand, in a film that centers so strongly on the theme of feminine solidarity, they also need an assist from a kindly male detective (played by Adrian Quinn), so the film is a bit problematic as a feminist manifesto, even if Quinn’s characters does at least protect the film from appearing anti-male. All in all, the very serious problems posed in Practical Magic are solved a bit too easily, and the film was not a big success, despite its impressive cast.
The legacy of Salem witchcraft has loomed over the American witchcraft film from the very beginning, and it remains influential well into the twenty-first century. Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (2012) draws directly on that legacy as it tells the story of a witch and her followers who were executed, but not before putting a curse on Reverend Hawthorne (Andrew Prine), their persecutor, ensuring that his bloodline will eventually produce the spawn of Satan. Fastforward to the present-day, and Hawthorne’s descendent, Adelaide Hawthorne (Sheri Moone Zombie) becomes haunted by the executed witches and then apparently gives birth to Satan’s child. Unlike Rosemary’s Baby (an obvious influence) this film gives us a look at that child, a grotesque, wriggling, many-tentacled creature that no one could mistake for human. The unseen infant in Rosemary’s Baby is probably more effective, though. In any case, apocalyptic events begin to occur as the film ends, suggesting that the end is at hand. The plot of this one is nothing special, but it does do an unusually good job of creating a sense of dread along the way, somewhat in the mode of Suspiria, though this film is certainly not as good as either Suspiria or Rosemary’s Baby. Also, Zombie gets a satirical jab in at detractors who would declare the music he once produced as “the Devil’s music” by making music a key to the witches’ Satanic power.
Incidentally, this same musical motif is central to the 2015 Kiwi gross-out horror comedy Deathgasm. Here, a group of young outcast metalheads accidentally play a heavy metal song that triggers a demon apocalypse—which turns out to be pretty much indistinguishable from a zombie apocalypse. Much over-the-top violence and spewing blood, highlighted by decapitations and disembowelments, ensues—including one battle in which two metalheads duel attacking zombies with sex toys as weapons. Not for everyone, but those who find Evil Dead II too mild might like this one.
If the legacy of Salem provides a strong thread uniting a number of films about witchcraft, it is also the case that witchcraft has proved a surprisingly versatile motif that has been employed in a number of different ways in film. For example, in Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures (2013), witchcraft emerges from the Southern Gothic to produce a story that is really more romantic fantasy than horror, though it certainly has its dark moments. This film features a particularly impressive cast (ranging from veterans such as Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis to up-and-comers such as Alden Ehrenrich, Zoey Deutch, and Rachel Brosnahan). Many reviewers felt that the story, in which love defeats an old family curse and innocence outdoes evil, was a bit too cheery for the subject matter—something that might have been predictable from its source in a Young Adult novel of the same title.
It’s hard to imagine now the splash that was made by The Blair Witch Project when it was first released to theaters in 1999. It was huge. The premise is that the film consists of footage found in a camera left by a group of student filmmakers who ventured off into the Maryland woods to investigate the local myth of the Blair Witch, then disappeared. Thus, the rough, amateur, hand-held cinéma-verité style supposedly gives the film a more authentic (and scarier) feel, anticipating the effect achieved later by the Paranormal Activity series. Even Roger Ebert (normally not a huge fan of the horror genre) gave The Blair Witch Project a full four-star rating, calling it “extraordinarily effective. It’s certainly an interesting effort. We never really see the witch, just indirect evidence of her presence. What we mostly see is the growing terror experienced by the students as they become lost in the woods, then gradually encounter this evidence, making this more a “psychological horror” film than a “witchcraft” film, and it’s a pretty good one, even if it’s not quite as good as its reputation might indicate. A studio-produced sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, was released in 2000, but was much less successful than the original, and a second planned sequel was scrapped at that time.
Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch (2016) renewed the franchise, however. In this film (still presented as found footage), James Donahue (James Allen McCune) leads a team of investigators back into the woods where his older sister disappeared twenty years earlier (in the original Blair Witch Project). This time they are armed with the latest in high-tech devices, but of course their technology is no match for the evil magic of the Blair Witch, and bad things inevitably ensue. A much more accomplished piece of filmmaking than the first Blair Witch film, it also seems less effective, perhaps because it is a bit too professional-looking or perhaps simply because it seems a bit too familiar after the first film.
Clint Hutchison’s Conjurer (2008) is a ghost story-witch story hybrid that features the ghost of a witch who was lynched in the nineteenth century for practicing witchcraft and who has haunted the farm where she was killed ever since. City couple Shawn and Helen Burnett (Andrew Bowen and Maxine Bahns) move to an old farmhouse to start a new life and help themselves recover from the death of their baby in childbirth a year earlier. The house is fine, but a nearby cabin is haunted by the witch, and things turn ugly when it turns out that Maxine’s developer brother (played by John Schneider) plans to subdivide the farm to build more houses, which will involve tearing down the cabin. Meanwhile, Helen gets pregnant again (the film hints, but does not clearly stipulate, that the witch had a hand in making sure that happened), and the witch basically gaslights Shawn, who ends up in a mental asylum so that the witch can, in some unspecified way, take control of the pregnancy and the baby. Conjurer has some genuinely spooky moments, though its combination of predictability and loose ends detracts from its ultimate effectiveness.
The Love Witch (2016)—written, directed, and produced by feminist filmmaker Anna Biller—is a fascinating experiment in the use of horror film to explore feminist issues. Shot on film stock designed to mimic the look of garish 1960s technicolor, the film in fact greatly resembles a cheap, exploitation horror film of that era, right down to the sets and costumes (designed by Biller) and the wooden acting styles (though in this case the bad acting is clearly intentional). The look of the film and the style of acting contrast strongly with the state-of-the-art feminist message, creating a sort of Brechtian estrangement effect intended to cause audiences to sit back and give serious thought to what they are seeing on the screen.
The title character is Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young woman who has encountered a textbook case of patriarchal oppression all her life, beginning with her domineering father and then extending to her abusive and unappreciative husband, who eventually left her when she did not live up to his ideal of the perfect, obedient wife. In response, Elaine turned to witchcraft, wherein she discovered her feminine power, though that power is a bit too much for the men in her life. She constructs a candy-colored, Stepford-wife, Barbie-house world, then invites them in, but there’s really no place for them. In fact, one after another of them wind up dead, unable to handle the pent-up emotions that are released due to her love magic. Then, when her final lover in the film manages to resist her magic, she stabs him in the heart with a ceremonial dagger.
The satirical point of The Love Witch is fairly clear: patriarchal traditions have long prevented women from exploring their full potential and have rendered men incapable of dealing with women who do. The result is a battle of the sexes in which everybody ultimately loses. It’s a powerful message and an important one, but what is striking about The Love Witch is the style with which this message is delivered. In his review of the film, Kim Newman aptly captures the surprising success of this film when he calls it “a genre-stretching horror melodrama crafted with extraordinary detail and style. A touch languid, it’s also mesmerising, provocative, unsettling and sensual.” He then went on to suggest that the film is
“eerily minimalistic and so suggestive of a bygone time that it’s a shock half-way through when Elaine’s possible nemesis/would-be doppelgänger Trish (Laura Waddell) pulls out a mobile phone to take a call, revealing that this isn’t a period-set movie after all—as if Elaine has by force of will made a whole community live in her own design-fetish world the way Biller has stocked her filmic doll-house with beautiful puppets. And somehow it works—one of the most gorgeous films of recent years” (“The Love Witch Review”).
The category of films about demons is one of the most ill-defined in horror film. As I use the category, it includes a variety of entities that are specifically identified as “demons,” as well as various evil pagan deities, in addition to Satan himself. But even with demons thus defined, there are also different ways in which demons can figure in horror films. Most demon films, though, fall into one of two categories. First, are films involving direct demonic attacks on humans, including demonic possession. Second, are films involving cults devoted to the worship of Satan or other demons. In the sense I am employing the term here, the first truly important modern “demon” movie was Rosemary’s Baby (1968), one of the key films of the 1960s as a whole. It led, among other things, to the production of The Exorcist (1973), which is discussed in detail here.
Films About Demonic Possession
The Exorcist, a film about demonic possession, was such a huge success that images from the film have become indelibly imprinted in the American popular image. Meanwhile, the spirit of the film has hovered over films about demonic possession and exorcism ever since the film’s release. After all, the idea of an innocent, defenseless child being possessed by an evil, monstrous demon is horrifying enough that films involving this motif inherently have a head start toward horror film success. The Exorcist itself triggered a chain of unremarkable sequels and followups, though The Exorcist III (1990), starring George C. Scott, has its moments, even if it never achieves the visceral power of the first Exorcist. Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), which triggered its own chain of direct sequels, as well as a 2006 remake, is probably the most successful and important of the “demon child” films that followed in the wake of The Exorcist, but this one is really more like Rosemary’s Baby than like the more recent Exorcist, though it does sometimes echo the later film directly, as when it introduces an exorcist/archeologist working on a dig in the Middle East. The Omen focuses on a child who is apparently none other than the Antichrist (with the subsequent threat of an Apocalypse); it thuscarries particularly strong religious/eschatological resonances. The film begins as the rich and powerful Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) gets the bad news from a priest that his newborn son has died. The priest then urges Thorn to accept an orphaned newborn as a substitute, a fact that they agree to hide from his emotionally fragile wife Katherine (Lee Remick). The Thorns then raise the boy, Damien (played in most of the film by Harvey Stephens), as their own, though the mother gradually becomes concerned that there is something strange and dangerous about the child.
These hints of strangeness gain focus when Damien’s governess commits a very public and spectacular suicide during an elaborate birthday party for the boy, driven to do so to allow the devil’s servant, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), to step in to become the boy’s new nanny. From that point on, the boy grows increasingly odd and withdrawn, always shadowed by Mrs. Baylock and a mysterious black dog that seems to appear whenever something really bad is about to happen. Eventually, another priest tells Thorn (now the U.S. ambassador to England) that his adopted son is the spawn of Satan. Thorn is suspicious of the priest but checks out the warnings nevertheless, eventually discovering that his biological son had been murdered at birth so that Damien could be substituted for him. The plan is that the boy will grow up and inherit the wealth and power of his adoptive father, who is a friend of the current president of the United States and a leading candidate to become a future president in his own right. Eventually, convinced that Damien is evil, Thorn attempts to kill the boy but is shot down in the process by police. With Katherine having already been murdered by Mrs. Baylock, the boy is orphaned. He lands on his feet, however, and the film ends with the joint funeral of the Thorns, attended by Damien holding the hand of the president. This ending suggests that the president will adopt the boy, potentially putting him in a position of great power and placing the locus of conspiratorial evil in the Oval Office, in what can be taken as a direct nod to the then-recent Watergate scandal. The Omen ends before the actual Apocalypse, but it looks ominous—paving the way for the sequels.
On the other hand, this ending, however ominous, is more fun than terrifying, providing a little frisson of delightful fear reminiscent of the endings of older monster movies when the monster, presumably killed or at least incapacitated, suddenly arises again. Granted, The Omen takes all of its material with absolute seriousness, even solemnity, although (as is usually the case with this genre) its most chilling effects surely derive not from the big picture eschatology, but from the basic personal drama of parents (especially the frail and vulnerable mother) being threatened by their own evil child. Various other common parental fears come into play as well, including anxieties about taking home the wrong child from the hospital or even about accidentally handing one’s child over to sinister child-care workers. The very fact that such mundane concerns trump the film’s fundamental end-of-the-world premise suggests that American audiences are better at imagining personal tragedy than large-scale disaster, and that these audiences, by and large, aren’t really all that seriously worried about the Apocalypse, however consistent such worries are with the religious beliefs that most Americans claim to hold.
Nevertheless, The Omen illustrates the way in which the popular culture of the 1970s, with the twin specters of Watergate and Vietnam hovering in the background, was filled with a new sort of anxiety that goes beyond the relatively simple and easily definable fears of the peak Cold War years. Now the conspiratorial forces that threaten America and Americans are becoming increasingly shadowy and nebulous, us-versus-them narratives becoming blurred by the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between us and them. Indeed, this distinction is blurred even in the case of the Satanic Damien once he gets in the White House. Now, rather than defend the American way of life from evil, savage foes who would destroy it, Americans begin very seriously to wrestle with the proposition that the greatest evil that threatens them is the American way itself, at least to the extent that this way has been co-opted by secret, sinister forces in the U.S. government, in large corporations, or both.
The Sentinel (1977) was another relatively mainstream Hollywood film that sought to cash in on the fascination with demonic threats in the late 1970s. This film features no megastars of the order of Gregory Peck, but it does include a number of solid, veteran actors—as well as a young Christopher Walken in one of his earliest roles. The cast list is about the only impressive thing about it, though, because The Sentinel is a confused mish-mash that really makes no sense at all. Once again, Catholic priests (and nuns) save us from demonic threats from hell, but the overt attempt to make protagonist Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) a new Rosemary Woodhouse doesn’t really come off.
At the other end of the budget spectrum, 1977 also saw the release of Cathy’s Curse, a low-budget possessed-demon-child flick that actually works a lot better than it has any right to. Basically, a little girl is killed in a car crash, then comes back to possess her niece (the eponymous Cathy) via a shabby doll that once belonged to the original girl. This causes Cathy to become highly misogynistic (the original girl blamed her mother for her death), spout profanity, kill her nanny, and generally abuse everyone with whom she comes into contact. The narrative is pretty disjointed, and this one is definitely no Exorcist, but it’s surprisingly, creepily effective in spots. Not really scary, just really weird. Cathy, in particular, is pretty convincing as the sweet little girl turned hateful demon, making this one worth a watch, despite its shortcomings.
Demons and demonic possession took on a whole new style in 1981 with the release of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, which is bloody, violent, and horrifying and has no comic scenes whatsoever, yet is just enough out of kilter and over the top to be more fun than scary. The violence, though graphic, borders on a sort of slapstick, and Raimi was reportedly partly inspired by The Three Stooges in making the film, which uses gallons and gallons of corn-syrup blood and liberal amounts of fake entrails, etc. The film is also an important entry in the “cabin in the woods” genre, in which it turns out that any outing to a cabin in the woods, especially by a group of young friends, is likely to be disrupted by one or more of an almost endless variety of horrific monster things. Here, the obligatory young group heads into the woods of Tennessee (which is already a hint of bad news, because everybody knows that the backwoods of Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia, and Arkansas are inhabited by evil) for a nice retreat, only to encounter one ominous sign after another, from the very beginning. Indeed, one unusual thing about this film is that the bad things start so early, without the usual buildup. But things really go bad when they discover a Sumerian Book of the Dead in the cabin’s cellar, which releases all sorts of evil forces, eventually turning four of the five members of the group into cackling, murderous dementos, something like a cross between zombies and Linda Blair in The Exorcist. The only character left standing (and even he seems about to be killed in the film’s sudden ending) is one Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell), who destroys the book, as well as the other characters. Ash would, as the Evil Dead franchise marched on, become one of the central characters in American horror film, while Campbell and his offbeat charisma would go on to become one of the most important cult phenomena in American popular culture as a whole. The Evil Dead was essentially an extension of the 1978 short (also directed by Raimi and starring Campbell) and would essentially be remade (with a larger budget and more emphasis on comedy) in its first sequel, The Evil Dead II (1987), which is discussed in detail here..
In Army of Darkness (1992) the Evil Dead franchise completes its evolution into pure farce. It picks up (sort of) where Evil Dead II leaves off, with Ash trapped in the Middle Ages, except now it’s the Middle Ages Monty Python style, and Ash is captured and enslaved, rather than worshipped as he had been at the end of the previous film. Actually, the nonstop slapstick of this film is closer to the Three Stooges than to Monty Python, and it is often hilarious, largely due to the performance of Campbell, who emerges in full cartoony-comic form, sometimes seeming to channel movie heroes such as Clint Eastwood or Kirk Douglas, but always as filtered through a combination of Jim Carrey and Curley of the Stooges. (Indeed, as an indication of Campbell’s growing status, the opening sequence of this film actually identifies the title as Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness.) There are lots of monsters and supernatural threats here, but none of it is scary at all, because it’s all so ridiculous. Much of the plot revolves around Ash’s attempts to retrieve the Necronomicon so that he can use its magic to return to his own time (and his own life as a humble housewares clerk at S-mart). But it’s hard to take this motif seriously when the magic of the book has to be activated with the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto,” though no one in the film (least of all Ash) can quite seem to get the phrase right. Indeed, Ash’s mispronunciation of the phrase causes an army of the dead (basically Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion skeletons) to arise and attack, but, again, this eponymous army is largely comical, as when one of the skeletons menaces Ash by announcing that “I have a bone to pick with you.” This may be one of the least horrifying horror films of all time, but it’s also one of the most entertaining, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments. The sequence in which Ash is attacked by a group of small, bumbling versions of himself, for example, is worth its weight in comic gold.
Army of Darkness was the end of the original Evil Dead cycle, though the franchise was rebooted in 2013 with Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead. This film improves significantly on the special effects and production values of its parent films, but then that somewhat removes the whole point of those films. It’s pretty much a nonstop sequence of cliché gross-out horror movie scenes, but without the gloriously self-undermining humor of the originals. It also replaces Final Boy Ash Williams with a more convention al Final Girl, but there’s no replacing Bruce Campbell. In fact, Alvarez’ film completely lacks the spirit of the originals, and one wonders if Campbell endorsed it (and provided a groovy cameo after the credits) because it mainly demonstrates just how crucial he was to the original Evil Dead films.
Army of Darkness, incidentally, ends with Ash imitating Elvis, pointing the way forward to Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), a film that has nothing to do with the Evil Dead franchise, except that it features Campbell and has some of the same zany spirit. Here, Campbell plays an aging Elvis Presley fighting an ancient Egyptian demon zombie dressed as a cowboy. Campbell is absolutely brilliant here as an Elvis who didn’t die at age 42 but lives on in obscurity in an East Texas rest home, having long ago switched identities with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff. (The film leaves open the possibility that the character really is Haff, but just thinks he’s Elvis.) Elvis would have been 67 in 2002, but this Elvis is more decrepit than that age would indicate because he has a bad hip and some general injuries from a fall off a stage. And a growth on his pecker. This thing is surprisingly poignant in its treatment of the effects of aging on the one-time King, as he looks back on his life with considerable regrets. It also provides some commentary on the vagaries of fame. It’s also hilarious. The set piece in which Elvis successfully battles a giant scarab that is a companion to the zombie is a classic. Anyway, most of the poignant material is in the first half of the film. Most of the second half concerns the appearance of the zombie at the rest home, where it can suck the souls from the inhabitants without being noticed, because they’re all expected to die soon, anyway. Aided by another resident who thinks he’s Jack Kennedy (played hilariously by Ozzie Davis), the King manages to destroy the zombie and save the day. He and “Kennedy” are killed as well, but at least they know they have died having made a final important contribution to the welfare of others, even when the rest of society had already written them off as useless and obsolete.
Coscarelli, incidentally, is perhaps best known in horror film circles for the sequence of four Phantasm films that he directed from 1979 and 1998 (a fifth film in 2016, produced and co-written by Coscarelli, was directed by David Hartman). The Phantasm films are some of the strangest horror films out there. The first film, for example, is something of a confused mess, though some of the confusion is clearly intentional, as it tries to muddle the viewer’s perception of what is “real” and what is merely being dreamed by the characters, especially 13-year-old Mike Pearson (Michael Baldwin), whose parents have just been killed in an auto accident. There have, in fact, been an unusual number of deaths in the small town where Mike now lives with his big brother Jody (Bill Thornbury). It turns out that this is because the local creepy undertaker, simply known in the film as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), has been killing people so he can steal their bodies and use them to make dwarf zombie slaves for use on a distant planet. A number of the dwarf zombies, though, also work on this planet as the Tall Man’s minions. Mike and Jody investigate and apparently trap the Tall Man in a deep mine shaft. In the end, though, he returns (maybe) with a vengeance. The film is presented absolutely seriously, but the basic concept and some of the visuals are so over the top that it plays mostly as macabre campy fun. The Tall Man never quite made it as a horror icon in the mold of Freddy or Jason, but this franchise does have its devoted fans.
Most of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) reads like a neo-noir detective story that takes 1950s Brooklyn private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to exotic New Orleans in search of a missing person. Indeed, much of this film reads like a riff on the neo-noir classic Chinatown (1974), with New Orleans standing in for L.A.’s Chinatown as a bastion of mysterious non-Western energies. Rourke’s Angel even spends much of the film wearing a sunguard over his nose, clearly recalling the nose bandage that Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes wears through much of Chinatown. However, once Angel arrives in New Orleans, the film seems to want to become a voodoo film. Then, in the final analysis, it turns into a sort of demonic possession film, essentially a reworking of the Faust legend, in which Angel turns out (unbeknownst to himself) to have sold his soul to the devil (played by Robert DeNiro, thus inevitably making Satan seem like a sort of supernatural Mafia don). In the end, DeNiro’s Satan comes to collect, and Angel is doomed. Rourke’s acting cracks at the seams in places, and the film as a whole goes a little heavy on the depiction of New Orleans as a sweat-drenched land of racism and black magic. There’s also a particularly hokey shot of a baby with glowing eyes at the very end (possibly a Rosemary’s Baby homage), but the film as a whole is highly entertaining.
The year after Evil Dead II, Night of the Demons employed some of the same comic strategies in its deployment of the motif of a demonic attack on humans. Here, though, the film’s framework is that of teen comedy, enhanced by excessively gory visuals. A group of teens decide to spend Halloween night in an abandoned mortuary that is rumored to be haunted by demons. What could go wrong? Pretty much everything, of course, in a film that has a lot of the sensibility of a 1980s slasher film and whose visuals draw on a variety of subgenres, including zombie films. It’s definitely no Evil Dead II, but it was successful enough to inspire two sequels and a 2009 remake.
If Angel Heart employs the darker elements of film noir to reinforce its horror film plot, Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) is a supernatural film that riffs on film noir for comic effect. Here, Fred Ward plays private investigator Philip Lovecraft, who has to try to foil a plan to use the Necronomicon to release apocalyptic evil into the world. Luckily, the plan requires the sacrifice of a virgin—who of course turns out secretly not to be a virgin at all, helping Lovecraft to emerge victorious. Amusing in places, Cast a Deadly Spell is just as silly as the great film noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but not nearly as much fun, despite the plays on supernatural motifs.
If Angel Heart can feature Robert DeNiro as a Satan figure, then it only seems fair that The Devil’s Advocate (1997) should cast Al Pacino in a similar role, this time amusingly going by the name of “John Milton,” though we know who he really is. Here, in a big-budget, big-concept film with big movie stars (it also features Keanu Reeves and a young Charlize Theron), Hollywood goes all-out to produce a high-quality supernatural horror film, somewhat in the mode of Rosemary’s Baby, but with more of a sense of humor. Indeed, the central plot even involves Satan’s attempt to produce an offspring who will become the anti-Christ, though in this case, the offspring would actually be his grandson. Alas, director Taylor Hackford is no Roman Polanski, and The Devil’s Advocate is certainly no Rosemary’s Baby, partly because it fails to maintain the kind of constant atmosphere of tension that informs Polanski’s film, instead tossing in liberal amounts of dark humor via Pacino’s over-the-top performance. This can be entertaining, but it also contributes to the fact that the intentional humor is supplemented by many scenes that are inadvertently humorous. In addition, The Devil’s Advocate is overstuffed, too clever by half, and tries to do too many things, including working in a considerable amount of satire about the Satanic vileness of lawyers.
Stigmata (1999) is an unusual possession narrative, in that ordinary hairdresser Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette) gets possessed by the spirit of a dead priest and begins to suffer the stigmata of Christ, which I guess confuses two different phenomena, but, hey, it’s not like either one of them makes sense to begin with. Vatican scientist Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) comes to investigate, but discovers more than he bargained for. For one thing, he experiences an almost irresistible sexual attraction to Arquette’s Paige; for another, the whole thing is part of a complex coverup in which forces in the Vatican, led by Cardinal Daniel Houseman (Jonathan Pryce) are attempting to suppress the discovery of a new gospel, in the words of Christ Himself, that seems to verify the authenticity of Christ, but reveals the Church to be a fraud. Houseman even reverts to attempting to strangle Frankie, but Kiernan saves her. Kiernan also discovers the actual scroll containing the new gospel, but then the film ends, though it does continue with on-screen text noting the 1945 discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, believed by many scholars to be the most authentic of the gospels, but long rejected by the Church as heresy. This one is not all that scary or effective as a possession/horror movie, but it’s a pretty good detective story and actually quite a lot of fun.
Of course, exorcisms are actually conducted in the real world, sometimes with horrific effects. In 1976, a mentally ill German woman named Annaliese Michel was killed when her parents agreed to withdraw her from medical treatment and hand her over to two priests, who argued that she was possessed by demons and subsequently withheld most food and water from her in order to starve out the demons. She, of course, died of starvation and dehydration, because you have to have food and water to live. She weighed 68 pounds when she died. The priests, unable to produce any evidence of the possession, were convicted of manslaughter. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is a courtroom drama loosely based on this case, except that, of course, in order to make it more exciting, the film introduces lots of suggestions that the title character (played by Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) was actually possessed. This, of course, also makes it into a horror film, though the effects of the horror story are somewhat muted by the fact that they are all presented in flashback, while the present-day story of the film involves the trial of Father Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) for his role in Emily’s death, with Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) serving as his defense attorney. In the Michel case, incidentally, the priests acted with the approval of their bishop. In the film, Father Moore is depicted as a lone gunslinger, battling Satan without much support from the Church, which is more concerned with its public image than with fighting evil. Moore is convicted (of negligent homicide), though his sentence is limited to time served, and the film is much more sympathetic to his position than the German courts were to the priests convicted in the Michel case. (For example, while Moore does encourage Emily to stop taking her medication, he at least tries to get her to eat.) To my way of thinking, this makes the film irresponsibly complicit in the kind of harm that religion and superstition still regularly do to people who need medical, not spiritual, attention for their ailments—dating back to the ignorant medieval belief that many illnesses were caused by moral depravity. There is, though, a nice little complication at the end when Bruner starts to worry that she might have done a bad thing by helping Moore go free, perhaps to cause more harm. Horror films can have a socially useful function when they are read allegorically or symbolically, allowing us to view various social concerns from a new perspective. When they try to convince us that the supernatural is real, they can do only harm.
Exorcism films continue to be made (and popular interest in exorcisms continues to grow, often with seriously harmful results for those involved). One recent exorcism film based on real events (or at least official Catholic versions of those events) is Mikael Håfström’s The Rite (2011). This film stars the venerable Anthony Hopkins as a broken-down old exorcist, and he’s the best thing in it, even though he seems a bit like a broken-down old actor here, too tired of it all to be more than a merely a shade of his old Hannibal Lecter self. Anyway, he’s the Vatican’s ace (if unconventional) exorcist, but he himself gets possessed and has to be exorcised by a neophyte priest who has literally had one day of exorcist school. It isn’t clear why the experienced priest couldn’t handle the demon but the inexperienced one could. I suppose it’s some sort of test from God, or something. Mostly it’s a test of the viewer’s patience and a plodding waste of nearly two hours.
Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) (written by Diablo Cody) uses the demonic possession motif to deliver some gender-based political commentary, all the while also producing a great deal of comedy. In fact, much of the film seems like a fairly straightforward teen sex comedy, until high school sexpot Jennifer Check (Megan Fox, still riding the wave of her Transformers appearances) is abducted by a Satanic indie-rock band, who hope to sacrifice a virgin to their lord Satan in exchange for success in the music business. When it turns out that Jennifer is not, in fact, a virgin, the band still gets what it wants, but Jennifer gets possessed by Satan, instead of merely dying. She then begins a killing spree in which she seduces and then kills and eats a series of boys, whose lifeforce gives her power and an extra glow, until she is finally stopped by her bestie, Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried). Needy also ends up murdering the rock band, aided by the fact that she has absorbed some of Jennifer’s demon power. J. K. Simmons is a highlight as Mr. Wroblewski, the kids well-meaning, hook-handed, out-of-touch science teacher. But the real highlight of the film is the way it uses horror motifs to comment on teen angst, female friendship, female empowerment, and the sexual objectification of women. The film also comments on the typically male-centered nature of horror in general, with Needy emerging as a distinctively different Final Girl.
Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2007) reminds us that, if houses can be haunted by ghosts, individual people can also be haunted (by demons), no matter where they go. Here, Katie (Kati Featherston) has been plagued by a demon since she was eight years old. Now she has moved in with her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat), and strange things have started to happen. So Micah buys a video camera to record the odd events, the result, of course, being the found footage that is discovered after the demise of Micah and the disappearance of Katie. It’s a very simple premise, but very effectively carried out, with some genuinely scary moments. The film, made for roughly $15,000, grossed nearly $200 million worldwide, making it one of the great financial successes in the history of film and helping to propel Blumhouse Productions to the forefront of the horror film industry. It also founded an entire franchise of horror films that has now stretched to one Japanese film and six American films, the latest being Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015), which even added 3D to the found footage phenomenon.
Blumhouse scored another big hit with Insidious (2010), from Saw director James Wan. Insidious starts out like a haunted-house film in the mode of Poltergeist or The Amityville Horror, and it’s a good one, too. Here, Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) move with their three children into a new house where strange and scary things start to happen. So far, it’s a pretty familiar story, though this one is particularly well done. Given these events, the family decides to move again, though by this time their son Dalton is in an inexplicable coma. Unfortunately, the haunting follows them to the new house, so they bring in the obligatory spooky medium lady, Elise (Lin Shaye),two and dorky ghostbuster guys, (Tucker and Specs, played by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell, the latter of whom also wrote the film, which might be the only reason why these two characters are there. Indeed, at this point the film starts to get a bit silly and overloaded. It turns out that Dalton has astral projected his spirit body into the ghost realm, so Josh astral projects there to get him and bring him back, which he successfully does, thus preventing an evil demon from possessing Dalton’s body. But Josh himself apparently comes back possessed … and then it ends, fade to black, wait for the sequel.
That sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2, would appear in 2013, also under the direction of Wan. It’s a direct continuation of the first Insidious film, though the two actually overlap—and parts of Chapter 2 are essentially a prequel. The second film builds on the same mythology, though here the evil entities seem to behave more like ghosts than in the first film, though they still tend to haunt specific people, rather than houses. The whole story is a bit convoluted; it also introduces elements from other subgenres, as when the evil entity that has possessed Josh at the end of the first film turns out to be the spirit of a dead serial killer with mommy issues, invoking the whole Psycho tradition, as well as the whole slasher subgenre. The dorky ghosthunter guys unnecessarily return as well (probably because Whannell also wrote Chapter 2), apparently for comic relief.
Chapter 2 ends on a cliffhanger that seems to promise another sequel, but Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015) is actually a prequel. The Lamberts are no longer involved, but Elise and the ghostbusters are back, now with bigger roles than ever, perhaps because this time Whannell was not only the writer, but also the director. This film seems to blur the boundary between ghosts and demons even more than the first two Insidious films. Still, Elise makes an interesting protagonist, and this one is something of an origin story that relates how she first got together with Tucker and Specs, who (of course) aren’t really much help. It is fun to see a young Tucker with a mohawk haircut, though.
Blumhouse continued to extend their stable of demon-oriented horror franchises with the release of Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012), which grossed $78 in international box office, off of a budget of $3 million. Sinister is a supernatural horror film that features Ethan Hawke as Ellison Oswalt, a writer of true crime stories whose investigations take him into the path of an evil pagan deity named Bughuul, who likes to murder whole families, except for one child, which he leads into his world of images (possibly eating their physical bodies, though that isn’t made clear). Oswalt, his reputation declining and his sales falling, decides to write a book about one of the murdered families. Short of cash, he moves his family into the home where that family was killed, which is (understandably) available at a very low price. It’s an ordinary suburban ranch house, which makes it an unusually site for hauntings, but then this is a demon, not a ghost, so the house itself is not the point. When Oswalt finds a box of home movies in the attic that portray the killings of several families, his reactions mark him and his family as the next victims. Ultimately, Oswalt and most of his family are axed to death by the Oswalt daughter, who is then led by Bughuul into one of the films, like some evil version of The Purple Rose of Cairo. There was an opportunity here to explore the hyperreal world of postmodern images (and possibly to comment on horror films in general), but the film isn’t interested in going that way. It does, however, comment on economic precarity and on the extremes to which families are sometimes driven in an attempt to keep a roof over their heads. Thus, Bernice M. Murphy notes that Blumhouse films such as Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, and The Conjuring all “tap in to the rich seam of economic and class anxiety currently afflicting the American middle classes” (236).
A sequel, Sinister 2 (2015) was directed by Ciaran Foy, but written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, who also wrote the original. The sequel continues the same story and even carries over one character—the deputy sheriff who tried to help the Oswalts in the first film. Here, he plays an even larger role as he tries to help a mother and her two twin sons, who are now haunted by Bughuul and his previously-snared child minions. This one has an extra plot element involving the family’s abusive husband/father, and the deputy (now a private investigator) appears to succeed in saving everyone but the father, who isn’t much of a loss. But then there’s the obligatory shock ending. The minions, incidentally, seem very much like ghosts (and their actual ontological status is not really identified), so Sinister 2, among other things, is a good indication of the way in which ghost stories and demon stories are often quite similar.
James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), another film that often feels like a Blumhouse product (but isn’t), got quite a lot of attention when it was first released. Many early viewers and critics found it unusually scary. Others thought it was appalling because it seems to be a thinly-veiled anti-abortion allegory, due to its theme of demons who possess women and make them kill their own children. And the film unapologetically doubles down on the potential misogyny by building itself on the premise that the women convicted of practicing witchcraft in Salem really were genuine witches, pledged to obey Satan and now still doing evil things as a result. The film is based on real-world paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played here by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), whose questionable reputations in their investigation of events such as the famous Amityville haunting probably did not bode well for the outcome of the film. This casting, incidentally, is a bit problematic. It’s distracting to see Wilson as the husband here, after he had also been the husband in the first two Insidious films. And Farmiga does her best to pull off what is really the central role, but she is miscast and seems to wonder much of the time what she is doing in such a film. There are a few creepy dolls and a couple of fleeting moments of good horror movie visuals, but I find this one mostly too unbelievable (and politically irresponsible) to be really effective. It was a huge hit, though, grossing well over $300 million on a $20 million budget.
A sequel, The Conjuring 2 (2016) did slightly less well at the U.S. box office, but did much better internationally, ultimately grossing even more worldwide than the original. Wilson and Farmiga return as the Warrens, here introduced in relation to their work in Amityville, with no mention of the events of the first Conjuring film, so that this film seems more like a sequel to The Amityville Horror than to The Conjuring. In any case, here they travel to England to investigate the Enfeld Poltergeist, a famous real-world case of a suspected haunting. In a long film that often feels like a ripoff of The Exorcist and otherwise feels like a ripoff of almost everything else, the Warrens eventually save a young girl from possession by a demon named Valak, whose nefarious strategies make it very difficult to discern what is really going on.
A third Conjuring film is currently in the works, scheduled for a September 11, 2020, release. In the meantime, the Conjuring franchise has also expanded to include other peripherally related films in the same universe. The first of these, Annabelle (2014), focuses on a haunted doll of that name that was introduced in The Conjuring. Set in 1969, the film vaguely links its supernatural evil to the contemporaneous Manson murders, though that connection is not really explored. The film was not well received by critics, but it was successful enough at the box office to trigger its own sequel, Annabelle: Creation (2017). The sequel was also a major commercial success but received a much more positive critical response than the original. A second sequel, Annabelle Comes Home (2019) was still a commercial success, though less so than its predecessor, while receiving mixed reviews from critics.
The Conjuring universe sprouted still another branch in 2018 with the release of The Nun. Here, the apparent suicide death of a nun at a remote cloistered convent in rural Romania leads the Vatican to send investigators to the site. These investigators, Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and novitiate nun Sister Irene (played, interestingly enough, by Taissa Farmiga, Vera’s little sister) are joined in Romania by one “Frenchie” (Jonas Bloquet), who has moved there from Quebec. When they reach the crumbling convent, they discover that it houses a gateway through which Valak has been trying to enter our world, held back only by the prayers of the nuns. The nuns, though, are now all dead, and Valak is unopposed—except that he needs a human to possess in order to leave the convent. A long series of supernatural battles appears to end in victory for the trio of heroes, but we learn that Valak was, in fact, able to escape by secretly possessing Frenchie, necessitating Frenchie’s exorcism many years later by the Warrens, thus providing a clear link into the Conjuring universe and to the Warrens’ encounter with Valak in The Conjuring 2.
Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here (2015) is unusual enough that it is very difficult to categorize, but it fits vaguely within the category of films about houses that are haunted by demons, rather than ghosts. Traumatized by the recent auto-accident death of their son Bobby, Paul and Anne Sachetti (Andrew Sensenig and Barbara Crampton) move to a large old house in the small New England town, just to try to get away from it all. They are aware that the house was once a mortuary, but they are not aware that the mortuary was built directly over a sort of hellmouth that allows evil demons to have access to our world. They are also unaware that new souls must be sacrificed to these demons every thirty years and that it is now time for a fresh sacrifice. As it turns out, the Sachettis are triply haunted—by the demons, by the townsfolk who are trying to appease the demons, and by the burned and charred Dagmar family, first sacrifices to the demons back in the nineteenth century. The result is a pretty tense and effective thriller (though the Dagmar creatures are a bit lame). One of the highlights is the performance of horror director Larry Fessenden as a family friend who visits and then gets possessed by the spirit of one of the Dagmars, giving him an opportunity for a tour-de-force scene in which he comes off as a sort of poor man’s Jack Nicholson. The townspeople, meanwhile, seem more evil than the supernatural entities, and the Sachettis even emerge victorious. Sort of.
Films About Demonic Cults
Films about cults go back at least to The Seventh Victim, and there has been a variety of them ever since, some quite important. 1968, for example, saw the release both of Rosemary’s Baby, a genuine cinematic classic, and The Devil Rides Out (1968), a lurid thrill-ride that is, well, not a cinematic classic. It has its moments, though, and it was one of the most prominent Hammer horror films that didn’t derive from a Universal monster franchise. Here, Hammer’s flagship director Terence Fisher directs Hammer stalwart Christopher Lee in a tale of an evil (but posh) supernatural cult that owes allegiance to a goat-headed god that is essentially identical to Satan himself. Lee hams it up in this film perhaps more than anywhere except his death scene as Dracula in Dracula Has Risen from His Grave (1968). Here, though, he’s the good guy, working to save innocent victims from the evil cult. It’s also great fun to see Charles Gray (better known for playing Blofeld in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever) as the sinister cult leader. The Devil Rides Out never pretends to be anything more than sensationalist entertainment, even though it treats its material in an entirely serious fashion, without a hint of (intentional) humor.
Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), a key example of British folk horror, has been called (by the magazine Cinefantastique) “the Citizen Kane of horror films,” and it is certainly one of the finest cult horror films, though it doesn’t literally involve ghosts or witches or demons. Here, Edward Woodward is Sergeant Howie, a devoutly Christian British police officer (he reminds people in the film about 50 times that “I am a police officer”) who comes to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate reports of the disappearance of a young girl there. Then the film quickly becomes essentially a variant on the hillbillies from hell horror genre as the locals turn out to have ways of their own that are not necessarily hospitable to foreigners. Howie immediately notices oddities in the way the locals react to his inquiries and suspects that something highly suspicious is going on, which anyone could pretty much figure out from the fact that 1) Lord Summerisle, ruler of the island, is played by Christopher Lee; and 2) the stunning innkeeper’s daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), seems extremely enthusiastic about seducing the stern and humorless Howie. It turns out that the locals practice a Celtic pagan pre-Christian religion that sometimes involves human sacrifice. Howie deduces that they are planning to sacrifice the missing girl in the upcoming May Day rituals, but then it turns out that they have actually lured the police officer to the island so they can sacrifice him. Which they do. Inside a giant burning wicker man. Very well made and very good at building an atmosphere of strangeness—and clearly preferable to the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage. It is also superior to Apostle, a 2018 Netflix film that is strong on period visuals (it is set in 1905) and ramps up the gory details, but is otherwise little more than a less suspenseful reworking of The Wicker Man.
Race with the Devil (1975) is a somewhat half-hearted horror film that is far more interested in action and chase scenes than in the supernatural. Here, a group of campers (played by such well-known 1970s actors as Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, and Lara Parker) accidentally witness a ritual murder being performed by a Satanist cult. They then spend the bulk of the film being chased across North Texas in their well-appointed RV. The cult, as it turns out, has extremely far-reaching tentacles, which turns out to be bad news indeed for the campers, in a film that also sometimes smacks of the hillbilly horror subgenre.
Children of the Corn (1984), based on a short story by Stephen King, is not a great film, but it does seem to have struck a chord—and has become a well-known artifact of American culture, inspiring not only a total of eight sequel films, but television episodes of both South Park and The Walking Dead. It also combines three major tropes of the horror film: creepy children, satanic cults, and scary country folks. Here, the children of Gatlin, Nebraska, kill off all the adults in the town, and then threaten any outsiders (“Outlanders”) who happen to come by, including a couple played by Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton. The children, as it turns out, are under the influence of charismatic religious leaders among them, and, as a whole, Children of the Corn is first and foremost a critique of the creepiness (and potential deadliness) of fundamentalist religion (a favorite Stephen King theme). Here, there is also a malevolent supernatural entity lurking in the corn that is influencing the children, but that’s just kind of an add-on for dramatic effect. What is most important is that the impressionable children, under the influence of religion, can become dangerous and deadly.
John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987) is essentially a mainstream Hollywood thriller—and not a particularly good one. The central plot, however, does involve an evil cult, which is dominated by rich, white New Yorkers, who are willing to practice the dark arts in order to help them pursue material success. These arts centrally involve the ritual sacrifice of children, and the plot focuses on the attempt of the cult to make the son of police psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) their latest sacrifice. Of course, the white folks need a black African sorcerer to access the power they seek, and the film teeters on the brink of all-out racism in its depiction of the sinister African (who seems to have routed his own voo-doo-like powers through the Caribbean, for some reason).
For the next decade or so, American horror films tended to turn their focus away from films about demonic cults, though 1999 saw the return of Roman Polanski to the supernatural horror with The Ninth Gate (1999), a film that is not exactly about a cult, though it does involve a Satanic conspiracy. Johnny Depp plays Dean Corso, a “detective” who tracks down and authenticates rare books, often finding unscrupulous ways to make profits in the process. Corso is commissioned by wealthy collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to try to determine the authenticity of the world’s only three existing copies of a seventeenth-century volume entitled The Nine Gates. This volume is supposed to give its user the power to summon Satan to appear on earth, but Balkan has already determined that his own copy of the book does not appear to work. Most of the film is essentially a detective story in which Corso tracks down the other two copies of the book and attempts to unravel the mystery of their magic, eventually determining that only three of the nine illustrations in each book are actually authentic, so that one must collect the proper illustrations from all three books (drawn by Satan himself and signed “LCF,” for Lucifer) to conjure up Satan. In the end, with Balkan having been killed while trying to prove that he is fireproof after thinking he has taken on Satan’s power, Corso himself, in a somewhat hasty and facile ending, summons Satan, who appears to be about to emerge on earth just as the film ends. Unfortunately, however, this film never achieves the sinister atmosphere of supernatural dread that informs Rosemary’s Baby, while Depp’s turn as Corso is probably one of his most lackluster film performance, partly because of the really fake-looking grey at his temples and the hokey facial hair. This one has not fared all that well with critics in general, partly because of the inevitable comparison with Rosemary’s Baby.
Among the numerous films involving evil cults, Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) is one of the better ones, even if the exact nature of the cult in this particular film remains a bit vague. The focus instead is on Final Girl Samantha Hughes (Jocelin Donahue), a sweet young college girl who takes a babysitting gig back in the 1980s under strange circumstances at a creepy remote mansion on the night of a full lunar eclipse. Donahue is terrific in the role, as she gradually realizes that something is seriously wrong with her situation—until she eventually wakes up tied inside a pentagram with the strange cult members (one of whom is played by A. J. Bowen, who shows up so frequently in indie horror films of this period) surrounding her. She escapes and is chased into a graveyard, where she decides to foil their plans for her by blowing her brains out. No matter—we later see her in a hospital, where she has somehow survived. We also learn that she is pregnant, presumably carrying Satan’s child, in the mode of Rosemary Woodhouse. In short, The House of the Devil is a virtual collection of clichés from 1980s horror films, yet still manages to be an effective thriller. Moreover, its self-conscious use of motifs from the 1980s is done in a highly interesting mode of postmodern pastiche that adds an extra dimension to the film, taking it beyond the realm of the run-of-the-mill indie horror film.
Patrick Lussier’s Drive Angry (2011) is very much about a demonic cult, though it isn’t really all that interested in exploring the supernatural in any sort of serious way. Instead, it’s a petal-to-the-metal action thriller that merely uses its supernatural elements as an excuse for abandoning verisimilitude altogether. And it stars Nicolas Cage, so of course it’s over-the-top and ridiculous. Shot in 3-D and heavy on computer-generated special effects, Drive Angry is like a high-tech grindhouse film. It features Cage as John Milton, a man who died ten years before the events of the film but has now escaped from hell to save his infant granddaughter from an evil cult that plans to sacrifice her as part of a ritual designed to bring hell to earth. And Amber Heard, as the feisty Piper, who abandons her small-town Texas life to help Milton on his quest (and to help the film remain watchable). In an interesting twist, we learn in this one that Satan isn’t really all that bad a guy. In fact, he has no use for the evil cult and so his “accountant” (played by William Fichtner) is perfectly happy to help Milton defeat the Satanists, though he does insist on taking Milton back to hell in the end.
Also released in 2011, the excellent British horror film Kill List (2011) couldn’t be more different from Drive Angry. It features two former British soldiers who have been forced to become contract killers in order to make ends meet after coming home from the military, thus employing the only skills they were given there. This new “job” brings them into contact with some genuinely nasty individuals, ultimately including the members of a sinister cult. One of the soldiers eventually emerges victorious in his battle with the cult—but only in the sense of becoming a celebrated member of the cult and at the expense of inadvertently killing his own wife and child. Kill List is a very compelling drama with some apt social commentary.
Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) plays on all sorts of horror tropes and is best known for its commentary on race relations in America. However, it is, in its essence, a film about an evil cult of liberal white racists. Indeed, the activities of these white folks even include a bit of demon worship (involving the pagan goat-god Baphomet), though these activities are primarily science fictional in nature. This film is discussed in detail here.
In The Ritual (2017) four British mates go on hiking trip in the remote Swedish woods as a tribute to a recently murdered friend. Strange happenings soon begin, however, and it eventually becomes clear that the woods are inhabited by a cult devoted to the worship of an ancient supernatural creature. The cult, of course, wants to sacrifice the outsiders to their god, leading to some fairly effective action as the four try to defend themselves while at the same time struggling to figure out just what they are defending themselves from. The Ritual was produced in conjunction with Netflix and is a good example of the recent activity of Netflix in the horror film field.
Demon films tend to be a bit excessive in general, so it is no surprise that they have also sometimes been played for comedy. For example, even a film as dark as The Exorcist has been given the spoof treatment—in Repossessed (1990), a silly sendup that gains interest from the fact that it also stars Linda Blair as the target of a possessing demon. Much of the film involves the attempt of a televangelist (played by Leslie Nielsen) to exorcize the demon on television in order to raise money. At one point he even resorts to rock ‘n’ roll as a weapon, imitating Robert Palmer with a backup band of sexy nuns, à la the famous “Addicted to Love” video. In one of the funniest scenes, Blair’s character levitates above the bed, but Nielsen cuts the strings holding her up, causing her to crash back down. The oddest thing about this film is that Blair is so funny—even though she delivers pretty much exactly the same performance as in The Exorcist, showing just how close to self-parody that film already is.
More recently, two Netflix films have gone for Satanic comedy. McG’s The Babysitter (2017) is mostly a teen comedy that focuses on a twelve-year old named Cole (Judah Lewis), who seems fated for a tough teenagerhood as the target of bullies and as a nerdy outsider. Then his sexy babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving) steps in to try to boost his self-image. Unfortunately, she also wants to lure him into the clutches of her demonic cult. Much mayhem ensues, though Cole appears to emerge victorious after he destroys Bee’s Satanic book and runs her over with a car. Then, of course, the film ends with a final jump scare. Entertaining and watchable, this one is far from a cinematic classic, though it does touch at times on the ways in which puberty can be a genuine horror show.
The Netflix film Little Evil (2017) comes with some promising credentials, including a cast (headed by Adam Scott and Evangeline Lilly) that is more impressive (or at least recognizable) than those that are found in most horror spoofs. A riff on the demon child film that was so popular nearly half a century earlier—with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) pointing the way and The Omen (1976) probably being the most direct predecessor to this particular film—Little Evil definitely has its moments, though it never quite measures up to the hilarity of director Eli Craig’s earlier horror comedy masterpiece Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010), one of the funniest horror comedies ever made. The attempt here to mix the demon-child genre with the realistic problems of step-parenthood doesn’t always work, but it at least points toward the possible uses of this seemingly silly kind of film to address real-world issues.
Such films highlight the way in which supernatural horror films are always in danger of becoming ridiculous—or can sometimes be intentionally ridiculous. But such films can be quite serious as well, partly because the nature of such films means that they are not limited to the usual bounds of verisimilitude and can therefore explore various issues from fresh perspectives. All in all, supernatural horror has a rich history that has produced a wide variety of compelling films, even for those who do not believe in the supernatural. From classic films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist to recent films such as The Witch and Hereditary, some of the most important films in the history of horror have involved various sorts of supernatural elements.
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 Supernatural horror was, of course, important to the evolution of silent film as well, though silent supernatural horror films are beyond the scope of this survey. For a study of supernatural horror in the silent film era, see Murray Leeder (The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema.
 For studies of the jinn mythology, see El-Zein and Lebling. El-Zein, in particular, sees the jinn as a crucial underpinning of the worldview of Islam.
 On the history (and mythology) of Jazirat Al Hamra, see Iantorno.
 See Hoad for an overview of the difficult history of Djinn and of possible reasons for that difficulty.
 On the other hand, for an even more extensive Westernization of the djinn mythology (with significantly more dismal results), see the even worse 2014 American action-horror film Jinn. Here, the protagonist turns out to be a chosen one with special powers that allow him (with the help of a good djinn and a Catholic priest, of all things) to protect humanity from evil djinn.
 More recent golem films include the Hammer horror film It! (1967) and Louis Nero’s 2000 Italian film The Golem.
 Lead actor Ray Milland was Welsh by birth, but spent most of his life (and all of his acting career) in the United States.
 An excellent (and much more extended) adaptation of this novel, directed by Mike Flanagan, appeared as a series on Netflix in 2018 as The Haunting of Hill House.
 See Aja Romano for a discussion of the role of Ouija boards in the “Satanic Panic” that swept the U.S. in the 1980s and that still exercises an important influence on American horror films.
 In film, it seems that almost anyone with African roots potentially has access to voodoo, with New Orleans being a special locus of voodoo power, as in The Skeleton Key (2005). Voodoo often gives black folks the ability to get revenge against evil white folks, as in Sugar Hill (1974) or the “KKK Comeuppance” segment of Tales from the Hood (1995). But Voodoo films date back at least to 1932’s White Zombie, where the power is wielded by a white sorcerer (played by Bela Lugosi). Two late-1980s films, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), probably vie for the title of most shocking and violent use of voodoo magic in a film.
 While a number of films feature gypsy curses, the two most entertaining are probably Tom Holland’s Thinner (1996, based on a novel by Stephen King) and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (2009), the latter of which is discussed in detail here.
 This film is thus a precursor to the classic television series Bewitched, which ran on ABC from 1964 to 1972 and was itself adapted to film in 2005.
 This is the phrase famously used by the robot Gort to resurrect his fallen alien master in the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).