With Halloween fast approaching, EW is picking the five best films in a variety of different horror movie categories. Each day, we’ll post our top picks from specific group—say, vampire movies or slasher flicks—and give you the chance to vote on which is your favorite. On Oct. 31, EW will reveal your top choices. Today, we’re kicking things off with demons.
To the nonbelievers, demons are kind of funny—all horns and red faces, too unrealistic to provoke real scares. Then a legitimately terrifying, devil-centric movie—say, Paranormal Activity—comes along…and suddenly demons aren’t so silly anymore.
A good demon-focused film will paint the beast as undoubtedly real, something a mere mortal can’t get rid of easily. Demons are inescapable and devastating, and — perhaps scariest of all—they’re mostly imperceptible. Often, someone who’s tangling with a demon doesn’t just share share space with them—they’re fighting for control of the same body.
Thanks to their largely invisible nature, centering a movie around demons can be a challenge: With no physically concrete character to spotlight, these films are forced to focus on human reactions to demonic presences. For this to come through, an actor must convince audiences that she is indeed scared out of her mind, a la Mia Farrow as the increasingly paranoid mother-to-be in Rosemary’s Baby. Fear is contagious, but only if it’s genuine.
Although EW’s top picks range from the disturbing to the horrifically funny, all of these movies have one thing in common: The film’s main characters are overcome by the fear of battling something they can’t quite control and can’t even quite see. Whether we laugh or shriek at their struggle depends on the filmmaker’s intention, but a good demon film will always elicit a strong reaction—head-spinning optional.
5. Evil Dead II (1987)
Evil Dead II plays with horror in a way that’s earned it the distinction of a cult classic. Demons are scary, yes, but they can also be hilarious—especially when they’re possessing a single body part, as they do in Evil Dead II with Ash’s hand. Although it looks like a B-movie, complete with laughably unrealistic special effects, Evil Dead II is more comedy than anything. The gore itself is a punchline, such as the almost-black liquid posing as blood and Ash’s use of a chainsaw to replace his demonic arm. The wacky effects are so prevalent that they transform Evil Dead II into a world of its own, where dancing corpses and manic decapitated heads are the norm—and where battling evil is more amusing than scary.
4. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods isn’t an obvious demon film. In fact, it isn’t obviously any sort of horror film, which is part of its magic. The movie begins with a group of young people heading off to a, well, you know—only for disaster to strike. What happens from then on is a glorious mashup of horror clichés that both satirizes and embodies the genre up until the very end, when the two remaining cabin-goers decide it’s best to let the Ancient Ones—the movie’s demon-like race—replace humankind as they share a goodbye joint. While the Ancient Ones are modeled off of H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu rather than demons, they resemble devils in just about every way: They live underground, they control the world’s monsters, they insist on human sacrifices. But unlike the antagonists in other demon films, the Ancient Ones have the power to destroy the entire world—adding a nice dose of absurdity to an otherwise frightening concept.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
By this point, everyone knows that Rosemary’s baby is also Satan’s baby. But regardless of whether you know the big twist, the movie’s still eerie and foreboding. This isn’t a typical scary movie; it won’t make you want to curl up under a blanket with only your eyes peeking out (excluding the surreal and nightmarish rape scene). Instead, the film focuses on the psychological torment Rosemary endures throughout her troubled pregnancy—one that isn’t eased by her husband, neighbors, and doctor, all people Rosemary assumed she could trust. As Rosemary’s paranoia grows, so does the viewer’s —until everyone’s suspicions are realized in the film’s chilling, haunting finale. Rosemary’s Baby isn’t so much about the demon itself, but about how inescapable demons—and their followers—are.
2. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity is deeply unsettling in the same way that The Blair Witch Project was just a few years prior: Both films claim to be found footage, meaning they aren’t filled with the kind of expensive-looking Hollywood effects that, although exciting, are a dead giveaway that a story isn’t true. No, Paranormal Activity could easily pass as a home video—and that intimacy is exactly why it’s one of the most terrifying portrayals of demons in film. Like many others, the demon in this movie is invisible, silently wreaking havoc in a young couple’s home. Thanks to their video camera set-up, we know just as much as they do about what this presence is doing, and we also know just as much as they do about what the presence looks like—meaning nothing. The film creates a tense sense of unease that never lets up, especially at the end—when the demon completes its violent mission and proves the only way to deal with a demon is to be one.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
A good horror movie will show viewers something they’ve never seen before, then make them wish they’d never seen it in the first place—and that’s exactly what The Exorcist does. The possessed is a young girl named Regan, whose status makes her situation all the creepier: Little girls are sweet and innocent, not evil and dangerous. Her exorcism isn’t fun or amusing—it’s downright disturbing. Although, 40 years later, the special effects have aged a bit, The Exorcist remains not just an excellent demon movie, but a generally excellent film that challenges audiences’ expectations—and, perhaps more notably, their comfort levels.