The Best Exorcism Movies That Aren’t ‘The Exorcist’

William Friedkin’s classic is the gold standard, but plenty terrifying films came after (and before)

the-exorcist-image
Warner Bros.

When it comes to creating a brand new genre, we usually give the credit to the film that cracks the code, not the film(s) that did it first. John Carpenter’s “Halloween” was hardly the first scary film about a spree killer, but it was the film that put all the pieces together in a structure that was easy to emulate. Similarly, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” — one of the most popular, acclaimed, and financially successful movies ever made — wasn’t the first film about an exorcism, but it was the ultimate film about an exorcism, fusing a serious drama about contemporary faith with the trappings of Catholic demonology.

In the years before and the years that followed, no exorcism movie has toppled “The Exorcist” from its place at the top of the pedestal, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only great (or at least entertaining) exorcism film. Let’s take a look at the best exorcism movies that aren’t “The Exorcist,” and in the interest of fairness let’s just label William Peter Blatty’s terrifying “Exorcist III” and Paul Schrader’s smart but troubled “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” as a couple of honorable mentions.

“The Dybbuk” (1937)

the-dybbuk
The Dybbuk

There were exorcisms in movies way back in the silent era, usually in films about the life of Christ, but one of the earliest examples of a picture built entirely around possession and exorcism is Michał Waszyński’s fascinating “The Dybbuk.” Based on the influential play by S. An-sky, the film is a folk horror story about two children — Leah (Lili Liliana) and Chanan (Leon Liebgold) — whose fathers vowed before they were born to intertwine their fates. But due to tragedy and mistaken identity, Leah grows up and is betrothed to another, Chanan turns to devil worship, and finally he possesses Leah’s body on her wedding day. “The Dybbuk” is rich with both detail and complex themes, and it still fascinates to this day.

“Il Demonio” (1963)

il-demonio
Il Demonio

From the co-writer of “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2” comes a harsh and bitter film about a young woman, Purif (Daliah Lavi), who turns to witchcraft after her lover scorns her. The townsfolk raise an angry mob, priests abuse her, and Brunello Rondo’s film can’t seem to decide if she’s truly possessed by a devil, or if it’s all in her head, or if she’s a misunderstood saint. Either way Daliah Lavi gives a ferocious performance, and even performs a demonic “spider walk” ten years before Friedkin got around to it. Italian censors said that “Il Demonio” was “The most offensive film to have been made in recent times,” and it still seems daring over 60 years later. 

“Abby” (1974)

abby-poster
Abby poster

Hot on the heels of “Blacula” and “Blackenstein” came William Girdler’s “Abby,” a blaxploitation riff on “The Exorcist.” The film stars Carol Speed as a preacher’s wife who is possessed by an African trickster god. She goes on a roaring rampage of sexual deviancy before she’s exorcised in the middle of a night club. Co-starring legends like William Marshall and Austin Stoker, “Abby” is a low-budget production but it’s got big ideas, boldly moving the horror into the church itself and exploring the hypocrisies of sin. “Abby” was a box office hit but Warner Bros. sued it into oblivion because it was so similar to “The Exorcist,” and the movie remains hard to find to this day. It’s in desperate need of rediscovery and restoration.

“Ninja III: The Domination” (1984)

ninja-3-the-domination
MGM/UA

There are lots of exorcism movies in the world, but only one of them opens with a ninja mass murdering everyone on a golf course, lifting a golf cart with just one hand, outrunning cop cars on foot, surfing those speeding cop cars, scaling a palm tree, crashing a helicopter, getting shot a hundred times, and then disappearing into a cloud of smoke. That distinction belongs to Sam Firstenberg’s “Ninja III: The Domination,” which stars Lucinda Dickey (“Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”) as a telephone repairwoman who gets possessed by the ghost of an evil supervillain ninja. The inimitable James Hong shows up to perform an exorcism, but it turns out — as well all know — that “only a ninja can destroy a ninja.” Dismissed as laughable hokum in the early 1980s, “Ninja III: The Domination” has finally been reevaluated, and rightly celebrated… as absolute hokum.

“Repossessed” (1990)

repossessed
Leslie Nielsen in “Repossessed” (New Line Cinema)

Linda Blair returns, sort of, to the role that earned her an Oscar nomination in this hilarious spoof comedy about a little girl who gets possessed by the devil, then grows up and gets “Repossessed.” In the rapid-fire joke tradition of “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” — and hey, this movie co-stars Leslie Nielsen too! — Bob Logan’s yuckfest piles silly gags on top of topical commentary, envisioning a sequel to “The Exorcist” where corrupt televangelists monetize a crisis of faith and accidentally spread the devil’s gospel. Some of the jokes have aged better than others, but the hit-to-miss ratio is still impressive, and Blair reveals that she’s a brilliant comedian who deserved more opportunities to show off her wacky side.

“Stigmata” (1999)

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Patricia Arquette in “Stigmata” (MGM)

Rupert Wainwright’s supernatural thriller has an intriguing premise: “Stigmata” is not about an innocent person possessed by a demon, it’s about a sinner possessed by a saintly Catholic priest. Patricia Arquette stars as Frankie, a tattoo artist who is afflicted with the stigmata — the mystical manifestation of the wounds of Christ — even though she’s an atheist. Gabriel Byrne co-stars as the priest trying to save Frankie before the final wound kills her. The late-1990s hyperactive editing sometimes distracts from how smart this material is, but a great cast and lush cinematography ultimately bring out the best of it.

“Constantine” (2005)

Keanu Reeves Constantine
Warner Bros.

The first adaptation of the celebrated Vertigo comic “Hellblazer” stars Keanu Reeves as a jaded professional exorcist. He’s dying of lung cancer, but a mystery lands at his doorstep in the form of a cop, played by Rachel Weisz, investigating the supernatural death of her sister (also played by Rachel Weisz). Francis Lawrence’s film takes some liberties with the source material — reimagining John Constantine as American, and changing the ending so it’s about 90% less clever — but Reeves nails Constantine’s bitter weariness, and the film doles out so many exciting concepts and set pieces that you can’t catch your breath long enough to criticize.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005)

the-exorcism-of-emily-rose
Screen Gems

Scott Derrickson’s first bona fide hit is a challenging genre mash-up: a legal thriller about a botched exorcism. Laura Linney stars as a hotshot defense attorney assigned to defend a priest, played by the late Tom Wilkinson, who has been arrested for the murder of a teenage girl who thought she was possessed. Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”) plays the title character, and the film doesn’t leave much doubt in our minds as to whether her demons are real or not, but the trick is proving it in a court of law. “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” plays like the horror movie version of “Inherit the Wind” (or at least a smarter version of “God’s Not Dead 2”), and mostly gets away with it. Derrickson would later return to the exorcism mash-up genre with 2014’s “Deliver Us From Evil,” which combines demonic possessions with a hard-boiled cop movie. They’d make a good double feature but “Emily Rose” is the better of the two.

“The Last Exorcism” (2010)

the-last-exorcism
Lionsgate

In the wake of the blockbuster “Paranormal Activity” there were more low-budget found footage horror movies than can easily be counted. Some were good, most were bad, but one of the best is “The Last Exorcism.” Framing itself as a modern update of the Oscar-winning documentary “Marjoe,” the film stars Patrick Fabian as a sham reverend who has a change of heart, and now wants to expose evangelical hucksterism. The “documentary” is supposed to show off how he fakes performing exorcisms for profit, but maybe — just maybe — this one is the real deal. Ashley Bell was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her performance as the possessed teenager, and later reprised the role in the mediocre (and awkwardly titled) “The Last Exorcism Part II.”

“The Conjuring” (2013)

Lili Taylor in The Conjuring
Warner Bros.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life paranormal investigators, or at least, they existed in real-life and that’s how they made their money. James Wan’s “The Conjuring” claims they’re the real deal, and tells the story of how they rescued a family from a demonic force that was trapped in their house but eventually wormed its way inside them. A dynamite cast — Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston — bring the story to plausible life, but the eerie atmosphere and jump-scare editing will keep you on your toes.“The Conjuring” spawned a franchise that’s now conjured up over $2 billion, and it’s still going strong.

“Hell Baby” (2013)

hell-baby
Millennium Entertainment/Gravitas Pictures

Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon from “The State” and “Reno 911” co-wrote and co-directed this wonderfully silly and almost completely overlooked horror comedy. Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb star as parents expecting their first child, but when they move into a new and creepy house, she’s possessed by evil forces who want her to give birth to, well, a “Hell Baby.” Garant and Lennon co-star as suave Catholic priests with cool sunglasses who spend roughly a third of their screen-time saving souls, and the other two-thirds eating shrimp po’ boys. Co-starring Keegan Michael-Key, Paul Scheer and Kumail Nanjiani, “Hell Baby” is a rough but rollicking comedy, and its recipe for “pizza salad” is to die for.

“The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015)

The Blackcoat's Daughter
A24

Have you ever wondered what “The Holdovers” would have looked like if it was scary as hell? That’s “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” written and directed by Osgood Perkins (“Longlegs”). Kiernan Shipka stars as Kat, a teenager at a private school whose parents mysteriously don’t show up for the holiday break, so she’s forced to spend a week alone on campus with a snobby popular girl, Rose, played by Lucy Boynton, who thinks she might be pregnant. Kat starts to hear strange voices, and spends an unsettling amount of time in the boiler room, before the film’s elliptical storytelling begins to reveal all its secrets. The film’s exorcism is somehow an afterthought and the whole point, taking up very little screen time but revealing darker truths that justify this whole chilling journey. 

“The Pope’s Exorcist” (2023)

The Pope's Exorcist
“The Pope’s Exorcist” (Sony)

Like “The Conjuring” before it, Julius Avery’s “The Pope’s Exorcist” takes a real-life exorcist and transforms them into a supernatural cinematic hero. There’s no subtlety here, only Russell Crowe — having the time of his life on his little vespa — playing Father Gabriele Amorth, whose investigation into a child’s demonic possession unravels with all the kooky blunt force of a superhero flick. It’s a little formulaic but undeniably entertaining, and Crowe was so good as a sensitive exorcist that, surprisingly, it’s become his new “thing.”

“The Exorcism” (2024)

The Exorcism
Russell Crowe in “The Exorcism” (Vertical/Miramax)

Filmed before “The Pope’s Exorcist” but released one year afterwards, Joshua John Miller’s “The Exorcism” once again stars Crowe as a Catholic priest performing an exorcism. Or more accurately, he stars as an actor playing a Catholic priest performing an exorcism. And it turns out he’s the one who needs an exorcism. Set against the backdrop of an ill-advised “The Exorcist” remake, Miller’s film plays like melodramatic black box theater: intimate, disquieting, and shockingly revelatory. Crowe gives one of the better performances of his late career as a man wrestling with his inner demons, a normally towering figure who has been browbeaten into submission by his manipulative director and, worse, his own shame.

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