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A Brief History of Cinematic Exorcisms

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Aug 25, 2010 | 12:37pm EDT

This week, Eli Roth invites you to witness what he calls The Last Exorcism, but let's face the film facts here people: Priest's have been exorcising demons in Hollywood long before the world cared about him (does anyone even care now?). The religious method of cleansing the possessed is as much a myth as it is a mystery, but it has always been a great subject for movies. In honor of the spooky new film, which hits theaters this Friday, we've exercised our own knowledge of film history to bring you a Brief Timeline of Cinematic Exorcisms. Check out the history of this horror sub-genre below!

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Blithe Spirit Blithe Spirit (1945)

In what is more than likely the very first cinematic exorcism, Blithe Spirit focuses on a husband and his second wife who are haunted by the ghost of his first, named Elvira (coincidence? I think not). The married couple seeks the help of a medium named Madame Arcati, who contacts the deceased lover and tries to fix up this nasty little triangle. There are more chuckles than thrills in this Golden Age fantasy-comedy, but it deserves a spot in our timeline because I don’t think you’ll find an exorcism on film before it.

The DevilsThe Devils (1971)

In Ken Russell’s 1971 shocker, you will find many sequences of depraved acts that make an exorcism look tame. The film is a dramatized historical account of the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier, a 17th-century French priest executed for witchcraft following the supposed possessions of Loudun. You could view the film as a warm-up to The Passion of the Christ in terms of its graphic violence, but in addition to crucifixion and torture, this one’s got nuns involved in an orgy at the feet of a statue of Christ, as well as Vanessa Redgrave masturbating with a human bone. Chew on that, Father Merrin.

The ExorcistThe Exorcist (1973)

Though there may have been examples of exorcisms in movies before it, William Friedkin’s incredibly frightening film has become the fictional benchmark for the religious practice. Both cinematically intense and controversial within the religious community, it is the most successful horror film of all time and rightly so: There are images within that you won’t easily forget.

MartinMartin (1977)

A B-movie for the history books, George A. Romero’s Martin is a vampire-romance tale with just a touch of exorcism. The title character is an obsessive “serial feeder” (I just made that up) who preys on young women, grifters and criminals in and around Braddock, PA. His old-school Greek grand uncle attempts to shoo away the evil inside him by contacting two priests to perform an exorcism, but they are unsuccessful. Martin eventually meets a tragic fate as his own “blood” ironically kills him.

The Exorcist II: The HereticThe Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)

Far from the success of its predecessor, the sequel to Friedkin’s masterpiece was directed by John Boorman, who presented a more allegorical and symbolic story that failed to captivate audiences the way the original did. In many ways it’s a rehash of The Exorcist, but it explores the positive side of the supernatural.

BeetlejuiceBeetlejuice (1987)

We’ll now take another break from William Peter Blatty’s satanic saga and travel to Winter River, CT, where the recently deceased Maitlands meet the afterlife’s leading bio-exorcist, Betelgeuse. Tim Burton gave horror fans a lighter look at the world of the dead as Michael Keaton’s wild and crazy supernatural swinger rids Barbara and Adam of their house’s new owners. Additionally, we get the rare opportunity to see what happens to ghosts who have been exorcised via the Lost Souls room.

Exorcist IIIExorcist III (1990)

“Save your prayers, God is not here with us now” -- and neither is any sign of true quality in W.P. Blatty’s cinematic adaptation of his own novel, Legion, which he claimed was the true sequel to the original 1973 film. Though the film is cemented within the Exorcist canon, it’s really more of a standalone serial-killer/murder mystery hiding behind the title of the greatest horror movie ever.

RepossessedRepossessed (1990)

No classic film is above being parodied, and The Exorcist was the victim of satire in this lowbrow comedy that cast Linda Blair as, essentially, Regan MacNeil all grown up with a family of her own. When the Devil possesses her once again, it’s up to Father Jebedaiah Mayii (Leslie Nielsen) to exorcise the demon. By this point, exorcisms were so ingrained in global pop culture that the magic of the film that made the religious practice a phenomenon had been nearly forgotten.

Scary Movie 2Scary Movie II (2001)

Continuing on in the tradition of mocking cinematic staples, the Wayans brothers conjured a blue-chip franchise by mashing together parodies of hit horror premises. The second film in the series featured a riotous vignette that at once parodies and pays homage to The Exorcist.

Exorcist: The BeginningExorcist: The Beginning (2004)

After 14 years and many spoofs, the horror franchise that made “exorcism” a household term returned to shock a new generation of moviegoers. Unfortunately, the tricks of ‘70s cinema didn’t work as well in a world of contemporary special effects, and though there were some frightening moments in the film, it didn’t reach the level of terror that fans were hoping for.

ConstantineConstantine (2005)

In the decade of superhero cinema, Warner Bros. found a way to reinvent the exorcism with this underrated comic-book adaptation. Keanu Reeves plays an irreverent supernatural detective who casts away demons in Los Angeles. The exorcisms are physically brutal, and, with plausible makeup and prosthetics, the victims are genuinely horrifying.

The Exorcism Of Emily RoseThe Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

The year 2005 gave the world a double dose of exorcisms. The second helping came in the form of a fictionalized account of the story of Anneliesse Michel, a German girl who authorities claim was truly possessed by the Devil. The film is an interesting mix of courtroom drama and true horror. Thanks in large part to Jennifer Carpenter’s chilling performance as Emily Rose, the film is a fitting companion piece to The Exorcist, one that attempts to scientifically explain demonic possession and exorcisms and also questions the moral and legal ramifications of performing one.

The Last ExorcismThe Last Exorcism (2010)

As stated earlier, don’t think that this will be the last film to feature an exorcism, especially if it performs well. Eli Roth’s low-budget faux-documentary centers on a troubled evangelical minister who agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed. The trailer looks decent and the reviews are surprisingly good, so hopefully this will be another solid entry into the sub-genre of horror.

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