Sometimes demons are difficult to identify. In horror, the term “demon” is used to describe any creature that isn’t a ghost or werewolf, witch, vampire, or another easily identifiable monster. Satan can be found in the mix occasionally, but not always.
One constant, at least as seen in movies is that a demon is an independent entity capable of doing harm. It usually manifests from another place, which may or may not correspond to what some religions consider hell. They can often take control of poor mortals and force them to perform their will and/or make very terrible swears. They can be quite hysterical in appearance. They can look very much like Megan Fox or wear a cape and top hat like our gentle friend, the Babadook. Although they are often seen as pure evil, some of the most fascinating movies suggest that the true demons are those within us all.
These demonic films will make you feel like you have to watch HBO Max, or that you are feeling the need to exorcise your spirit.
Keanu Reeves was brought in to play the comics’ quintessentially British demon hunter. Although he’s not the comic-book character, Reeves can still keep his cool in a movie about demonic possession. This is an action movie first and foremost. However, it’s also a well-made, entertaining film that has a little bit of a cult. Films tend to show demons as the dominant force. Even if they win, it is often only barely. Constantine allows us to imagine a scenario where The Exorcist is John Wick and angels are like Tilda Swann, Satan is a schlubby Peter Stormare
Where to watch: HBOMax
Black Roses (1988)
Parents were concerned about Satan lurking in their children’s heavy metal LPs before vaccine microchips. People in the 1980s were also very concerned about Satan. We are beyond convinced in the nonsense of whackadoo. Black Roses is the name band that comes to a small town and wins over initially anxious parents with its total squareness. They are destined to perform a series of more intense metal shows that will bring out the worst in local teens. This film is objectively terrible as a piece. However, the original soundtrack by King Kobra is fantastic and fits into the nostalgic vibe that makes it enjoyable to watch.
Where to watch: Shudder
Night of the Demon (1957)
Night of the Demon is elevated by Ambiguity, which helps to make it more than its rather lurid title and budget. It is based on a M. R. James story, and directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”), and tells the story of an American psychologist who is assigned to investigate a Satanic cult at England and determine if any of its members are guilty in a few deaths.
Although the film employs a simple, but effective, demon special effect, it never really tips its hand. Either the cult summons actual demons or they manipulate their victims into believing they are. It doesn’t really matter. The outcome is the exact same.
Where to watch: AMC+ and Fandor
The Exorcist (1973)
Although it is tempting to give the spot to Exorcist III, it is best to do so to draw attention to that much more quieter, but equally smart, sequel. No, William Friedkin’s classic is still the best of demonic possession films. It’s not equalled, but it’s certainly not eclipsed. Many of the best scenes from this film have been parodied or imitated so many times that their shock power may have diminished. However, the overall experience is still as disturbing and raw as ever.
Where to watch: AMC+ and Fandor
Burnt Offerings (1977)
It’s a great deal. A huge, but slightly creepy, mansion is available for rent at the time you and your family need a break from urban life. For a small fee, the owners of the property are willing to let it go. The location is remote so you won’t have to worry about anyone. You might be wondering what the catch is. You’ll just have to feed mom, who won’t leave her attic nook, but she’s Academy Award-winning screen star Eileen Heckart. What could possibly go wrong?
Although the setup is simple, the movie moves slowly and takes unexpected turns. Dan Curtis, Dark Shadows’ creator, directed and co-wrote the movie. The cast includes Heckart, Oliver Reed and Burgess Meredith. Ms. Bette, deep in her horror-movie phase, also appears.
Where to watch: AMC+
The Beyond (1981)
The plot of The Beyond is a bit irrelevant. But there is something about a woman who inherits an New Orleans hotel that happens be on the gateway to hell. It’s probably worth it in this real estate market. Lucio Fulci is the director. He focuses all of his strangest, most goriest instincts on a quick 90-minute of bizarrely translated dialogue and crosscontinental location work.
Where to watch: Shudder and Kanopy
Evil Dead II (1987)
Although we were tempted by the original, which would have been more fitting, we decided to let the sequel, which is slightly cleaner, stand in for the whole series, including the overtly comic Army of Darkness as well as the more serious, but still surprisingly good, 2013 reboot. This book, in addition to being the foundation of an unlikely franchise, also explains the mythology surrounding the H.P. The Necronomicon, Lovecraft’s evil book, is also featured here. It contains the deadites (parasitic demons who possess souls and have human bodies).
Where to watch: Max
Defy Temptation (1990)
New York City is home to two friends. The one is an actor who is living the best life possible in New York City, while the other is deeply religious and in the middle of a crisis. A succubus, on the lookout for unfaithful men to imprison, steps into his dark night of soul. But, truthfully, she isn’t all that picky. This stylish, hip-hop and jazz-infused film is a classic of black-led horror from the ’90s.
Where to watch: Shudder and AMC+
Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
Satan’s minions often serve metaphors, but seldom more so than in Adrian Lyne’s story about a troubled Vietnam vet (Tim Robbins), whose life is being disrupted daily by demonic entities. The experience is almost as emotional exhausting as the lead character. This character study has a heavy side of existential dread and a gut punch ending.
Where to watch: fuboTV and Epix
Clive Barker’s fantasies revolve around the blood of Baphomet, the Nightbreed deity and the being who grants them access to their underground society. Craig Sheffer happily indulges in the pleasure while fleeing a series murders that he is certain he committed. Barker’s “what happens if monsters are good and people bad” parable may seem a bit too stale to be considered a fairytale. It works well as a queer riff and is also a great dark tale. Barker’s Hellraiser with its demon-adjacent Cenobites is a better horror experience.
Where to watch: Shudder, Peacock, VRV
Demon Knight (1995)
It’s not an art film, but Demon Knight (aka Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) is a fun survivors-under-siege action/horror movie with Billy Zane as a powerful demon on the hunt for an ancient key capable of triggering the apocalypse (he plays the role with just a hair less camp than he’d bring to Titanic a couple years later). Ernest Dickerson, a long-time Spike Lee collaborator, directs the film with a lot of style and great practical effects. It’s always fun watching Jada Pinkett Smith kicking ass.
Where to watch: Starz
Noroi: The Curse (2006)
Although it was released in Japan in 2005 it wasn’t made available in America until many years later. By then found footage-style movies were so common (and had a mixed reputation), that Noroi didn’t make much of an impact. This one finally gets its day in the sun thanks to an official US release via Shudder. The story centers on Masafumi, a documentary filmmaker, trying to understand and film strange events that somehow tie to Kagutaba, a demon. The footage is presented by Masafumi Kobayashi as a complete documentary. This avoids a lot of the usual shaky-cam shenanigans. Although the movie is a bit long, the slow build of the film is not for everyone. However, it assembles the various pieces of the central mystery with care and builds to a climax that feels both unanticipated and predictable.
Where to watch: Shudder and AMC+