A popular subgenre of horror, the demonic possession and exorcism movies are a curious blend of psychological and supernatural. Unless you are a die-hard horror fan, exorcism movies generally turn away viewing audiences because they are exactly what you’d expect: the plot—usually recycled and rarely revamped—features a main character falling victim to supernatural possession. And, unfortunately, their titles are rarely creative enough to engage the viewer teetering on deciding whether the genre is for them. However, there remains a class of filmmakers and stars producing exorcism features that can make a fan out of any viewer with an open mind about horror.
From found footage to franchises and the one-offs in between, the best exorcism movies blend the standard, required elements with firm cinematic choices that elevate a baseline plot to a complete movie-going experience. Earning praise from critics and horror audiences alike, these exorcism feats range from box-office successes to Oscar-winning icons.
Updated on September 29, 2023, by Ryan Heffernan:
The supernatural has been a terrifying focus of many horror movies over the decades, with the idea of demonic possession being one of its most disturbing elements. 1973’s The Exorcist remains the pinnacle of the horror subgenre, and it is getting a direct sequel in The Exorcist: Believer, which hits theaters on October 6.
13 ‘Annabelle Comes Home’ (2019)
An interesting spin-off from The Conjuring movies, Annabelle Comes Home offloaded the burden of nullifying the evil spirits to the Warrens’ 10-year-old daughter Judy (McKenna Grace). Annabelle is safely locked away in the Warrens’ artifacts room, but a bumbling friend of Judy accidentally sets the doll free which unleashes a wave of terror on Judy, her friends, and her babysitter for the course of one hellish night.
The spirit movie hits all the right notes to be a taut, effective horror that offers horror fun more so than it does nightmarish scares. One of the ghosts known as the Bride possesses Daniela (Katie Sarife), leading to a brief though effective exorcism scene where Judy uses a recording of her father conducting an exorcism on the Bride to expel the ghost from Daniela’s body.
12 ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ (2023)
Still earning its due, The Pope’s Exorcist is on track to be a genre favorite. Based on the memoirs of the real-life former chief Vatican exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, who claimed to have performed over 50,000 exorcisms and founded the International Association of Exorcists. In the film, Father Amorth (Russell Crowe) investigates the possession of a young boy and begins to uncover conspiracies the Vatican attempted to keep secret for centuries.
The drawing factor here is the star power of its Academy Award-winning lead. Drawing a divided crowd from Rotten Tomatoes, as this genre usually does, The Pope’s Exorcist surpassed the expectations of its seasoned viewing audiences, with Crowe’s effortless transition to horror sealing the deal.
11 ‘The Old Ways’ (2020)
While it didn’t re-invent the genre, 2020’s The Old Ways did manage to use possession horror tropes to tell a creepy story of witchcraft and demons. With hopes of researching a story of witchcraft, American-Mexican reporter Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) travels to her ancestral home near Veracruz where she is abducted by a group loyal to a local witch who believes she is possessed by the devil.
The film hit the ground running, starting with the exorcism of Cristina’s mother and featuring another attempted exorcism on Cristina by the bruja early. Interestingly, while the film was a hit with critics with a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, fans weren’t so impressed with it.
10 ‘The Rite’ (2011)
No stranger to the horror genre, Anthony Hopkins presented viewers with another excellent performance. The Rite features Hopkins as Father Lucas Trevant, an experienced exorcist who takes on a skeptical seminary school apprentice Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue). Michael’s beliefs in psychiatry over exorcisms are soon turned upside down when he’s confronted with a terrifying force.
The exorcism feature draws from source material surrounding the experiences of real-life Father Gary Thomas, a California priest who studied exorcism at the Vatican. While Rotten Tomatoes Critics and audiences gave it a middle-of-the-road rating, the beloved Roger Ebert gave The Rite a solid 3/4 starsfor delivering on its promise of horror with enriching cinematography and solid performances.
9 ‘The Exorcism of Emily Rose’ (2005)
Headlined with Hollywood star power, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is an excellent blend of courtroom drama and demonic possession. Laura Linney stars as defense attorney Erin Bruner tasked with convincing a jury that Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) is not guilty of homicide after the woman he performed a church-sanctioned exorcism on died, the prosecution claiming Emily (Jennifer Carpenter) was a person with schizophrenia and not demonically possessed.
Co-writer and director Scott Derrickson opted to pull back on the gore factor with this exorcism installment, a typical standard within the genre’s formula. The Exorcism of Emily Rose isn’t over-the-top but calculated in presenting logic versus religion with its high-profile leads.
8 ‘The Medium’ (2021)
An Asian horror movie, The Medium pays homage to the likes of several iconic found footage features that came before it. In a co-production between South Korean and Thai filmmakers, the possession feature centers around a family in a Thailand village that within each generation one person inherits the powers of a spirit they perceive to be a Goddess. When a young girl seems to inherit something more sinister, the family attempts to rid her body of the negative entity.
Teetering between mockumentary and found footage, The Medium holds its fair share of shock factor throughout its over two-hour runtime. Underrated within the horror and exorcism genre, this feature is a creative take on an otherwise predictable genre.
7 ‘The Blackcoat’s Daughter’ (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter became something of a critical darling upon release with the film sporting a 75% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The eerie psychological horror movie follows a disturbed young woman with a worrying past as she ventures to an isolated prep school where two girls must battle a mysterious evil as they are left behind for the long weekend break.
The film was lauded for its atmospheric tension and the performances of its cast which included Emma Roberts, Kiernan Shipka, and Lucy Bonyton. It also provided a spin when it came to its exorcism scene with the victim begging the demon not to leave her after it is exorcised.
6 ‘The Last Exorcism’ (2010)
This found footage style feature is definitely a must when it comes to the exorcism genre. After years of deception, a troubled evangelic minister, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) invites a film crew to document what he contends will be his last exorcism. Upon meeting Nell (Ashley Bell), a farmer’s daughter he believes to be possessed, Cotton performs his usual stunts to no avail before quickly realizing the dark spirit possession Nell requires him to summon real faith to save her.
For audiences that can ignore the breakdown in editing (switching from single-camera documentary to multi-camera) toward the film’s conclusion, The Last Exorcism exceeds expectations with multiple well-timed thrills and scares. Its plot inspired a slew of sequel “parts” that many audiences of the time recognized from the dollar section of their local video rental store.
5 ‘The Exorcist III’ (1990)
Regarded by horror fans as a welcomed installment after the rather unmentionable sequel, The Exorcist III concluded the original franchise created by the novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty. The iconic George C. Scott stars as Police Lieutenant Kinderman who begins to connect the dots between a current murder investigation and the patterns of a serial killer executed over a decade prior.
His investigation leads him to a hospitalized psychiatric patient convinced he’s the executed killer while displaying similarities to a priest Kinderman knows died in an exorcism. It’s nowhere near as excellent as the first film, but it’s a pivot from the second film. The Exorcist III appeals to the genre audience that sees the good in the bad and appreciates the legacy the movie stems from.
4 ‘The Conjuring 2’ (2016)
Certified fresh by Rotten Tomatoes critics, this sequel overcame the sophomore slump that plagues many horror franchises. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) return to the big screen, this time in London to aid a single mother and four children tormented by a supernatural spirit that begins to possess one of the daughters.
The Conjuring 2 uses the dreary London weather to emphasize the chilling nature of the family’s haunting and Lorraine’s internal struggle against the malicious demon threatening her own family. There’s a classic horror feel to this exorcism film, proving once again that horror can be cinematic. This is just another epic installment in horror master James Wan‘s filmography.
3 ‘The Wailing’ (2016)
From South Korea, this feature is not only one of the best exorcism movies out there, but it’s one of the best (and underrated) Asian horror movies. The Wailing features a wave of hysteria and sickness striking a small village after a mysterious stranger (Kunimura Jun) arrives. After a string of brutal murders by possessed villagers, a policeman (Kwak Do-won) enlists the help of a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to protect the village and save his daughter.
The Wailing was a welcome departure from the standard exorcism formula including a priest and a possessed person locked in a claustrophobic room. While its two-and-a-half-hour runtime appears daunting, writer and director Na Hong-jin expertly utilizes thematic horror elements to engage viewers through an exorcism movie like they’ve never experienced.
2 ‘The Conjuring’ (2013)
Based on the case files of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring introduced horror audiences to the pair leading to a budding franchise and cinematic universe. After moving to a secluded farmhouse, The Perron family, specifically their matriarch Carolyn (Lili Taylor), begins experiencing supernatural manifestations that quickly turn from inconvenient to malicious, reaching a point of possession. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are called upon to help.
The scares are well-executed after careful tension-building and thematic elements under the keen horror eye of James Wan. Certified fresh, it’s one of the best modern horror features in addition to ranking among the best exorcism movies. The success of this introductory film led to three subsequent films under The Conjuring name and multiple origin story movies revolving around elements featured in the original movie.
1 ‘The Exorcist’ (1973)
This is the movie that started it all, forever inspiring rehashes that have yet to live up to the iconic nature of this 70s ground-breaker. Adapted for screen based on the William Peter Blatty novel (based on a true story), The Exorcist is the story of a worried mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), who enlists the help of two priests after her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), begins acting out, speaking in tongues, and levitating.
Nominated for 10 Oscars, securing wins for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound, The Exorcist broke all the rules and became quite controversial for its time, unsettling and shocking audiences still to this day. It set the stage for a whole new approach to horror, making this icon the best of the best.
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