One thing that all fans of the horror genre can agree with is that there is a great selection of different sub-genres to choose from. To the casual movie viewer who doesn’t necessarily watch horror, though, they typically just see the genre as nothing but gore and pointless violence.
We who are initiated, however, know the truth and, no matter what the case may be, can find something that speaks to us on some level in every sub-genre that we have. Today I would like to look at a handful of horror films that have heavy tones of religion or could even be called “religious” horror films.
This sub-genre is arguably one of the top forms of horror because of its subject matter. Religion is a hot button topic, especially in today’s society, and I feel that this is one of the biggest reasons why these films thrive even years after their initial theatrical run.
1. The Exorcist (1973)
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair
Directed By: William Friedkin
This film is highly regarded as one of – if not THE – “scariest” film(s) of all time. I don’t necessarily agree that it is the “end all, be all” of horror, but as a huge horror fanatic I cannot deny that the film is effective and still holds its own within the genre ranks. If you’re not familiar with this film or know only the bare bones of what the synopsis is, we follow the story of young Regan (Blair), who becomes possessed by a powerful demonic presence called Pazuzu. Regan’s mother brings in two priests to perform an exorcism on the young girl, and as the film progresses, we get a deep story that is well written, acted, and filmed. The Exorcist deals directly with religion; one of the biggest plot points revolves around faith being doubted and regaining that faith. This film is definitely a must-see if you haven’t already.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Maurice Evans, Ralph Bellamy, and Angela Dorian
Directed By: Roman Polanski
Rosemary’s Baby hits on a couple of different levels when we look at the horror that it showcases, one being that it can be looked at as featuring someone who is having a psychotic break and is incapable of doing anything about it. We can also look at the film as one that tells the story of a woman being taken advantage of, and of course there is the satanic angle that worms its way throughout. Rosemary’s Baby is a dark film that takes us on a ride that is best defined as “gripping” in my opinion. It was recently made into a TV mini-series, but unfortunately I have not been able to see any of it. However, I will give Rosemary’s Baby a glowing recommendation – both the original film and the book on which it’s based.
3. The Sacrament (2013)
Starring: Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Kentucker Audley, Gene Jones, Kate Lyn Sheil, Donna Biscoe, and Derek Roberts
Directed By: Ti West
This is the most recently made film that appears on our list. I am personally not a huge fan of found footage, but this film worked for me on such a visceral level that I could not leave it off. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to put this list is together because of this film. It follows a young man who is going to visit his sister, who is part of a religious cult. The brother is documenting the trip with an investigative team who go with him to the remote commune. Needless to say, this film is tense and dark, and it gets you invested damn near right away. I will say that it is a little slow to start, but trust me… it gets better. The Sacrament is very atmospheric and creepy, evoking a Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate kind of mentality that is quite effective.
4. The Wicker Man (1973)
Starring: Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt, and Christopher Lee
Directed By: Robin Hardy
This is another film that is highly regarded as a classic horror film; unfortunately, when it first came out, it wasn’t given the respect it deserved. Like The Sacrament, The Wicker Man is a film about cult mentality – this one being Pagan and not Christian, however. We follow a detective who is searching for a missing girl on the Scottish island of Summerisle. As he conducts his investigation, he is told that the girl never existed. As the detective starts to uncover clues about rituals and ceremonies that take place on this secluded island, the tension begins to build and keeps building right up to the horrifying ending.
5. The Omen (1976)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, and Billie Whitelaw
Directed By: Richard Donner
The Omen is another film that is steeped heavily in religion considering the film is about the devil’s son, Damien. It is a classic in every sense of the word and a must-see for any and all horror fans. While the film is well written and directed, some of the acting is not the greatest, but I can give it a pass. The Omen follows an American diplomat named Robert who adopts Damien when his wife unfortunately delivers a stillborn child. Now the couple are with child again, and after Damien’s first nanny hangs herself, they are warned by Father Brennan that Damien will kill the unborn child. Shortly after, Father Brennan dies, and the unborn child is in fact miscarried after Damien pushes his adoptive mother off the balcony, leading to Robert beginning to look into just who, or what, Damien may be. Like I said, The Omen is a must-see for horror fans.
6. Carrie (1976)
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, William Katt, Nancy Allen, P.J. Soles, Amy Irving, John Travolta, and Betty Buckley
Directed By: Brian De Palma
Carrie is another classic film that is incredibly well made in every way. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Carrie tells the story of a young woman who lives under the domineering religious reign of her mother. The film opens up with a shower scene that shows the young girl getting her first period, and from there we see her learn to harness a powerful telekinesis. We all know the story of Carrie; no matter what version of the film you have seen, you know the story. I’ve included it here because it has heavy themes of religion. When young Carrie gets her period, she is stunned and terrified that she may be dying. Her mother then condemns her and throws her in a closet to pray for forgiveness. Carrie’s mother has her own twisted view of Christianity, which she thrusts on Carrie over and over. Carrie is a great film for getting younger horror fans into the genre, especially around Prom Night!
7. Red State (2011)
Starring: Michael Angarano, Kerry Bishe, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Michael Parks, Kevin Pollak, and Stephen Root
Directed By: Kevin Smith
Say what you will about Kevin Smith… I consider myself a huge Smith fan and, with a couple of exceptions, enjoy all of his movies (I’m looking at you, Jersey Girl and Cop Out). Smith is mostly a comedic director, but he has put a couple of films out that can be looked at as having a foot inside the horror genre. His most relevant is Red State, which tells the story of three teenage friends who try to hook up with woman online only to be trapped by a fundamentalist church. This film, like The Sacrament, falls into the “cult” category of religious horror. It is a fun time; if nothing else, it is great to have on in the background if you’re working on something. The film does have its tense moments but ultimately is fairly tame when it comes to showcasing the horror that I think Smith was wanting to deliver. I still recommend it, though, and feel you definitely should give it a chance if you haven’t seen it yet.
8. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Starring: Jennifer Carpenter, Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Colm Feore, Mary Beth Hurt, and J.R. Bourne
Directed By: Scott Derrickson
Scott Derrickson brings us a very gripping possession film centered around a courtroom drama that is slightly underrated. I have heard so many people bashing this film that it blows my mind. The Exorcism of Emily Rose tells the story of a lawyer who takes on a case of negligent homicide that involves a priest who performed an exorcism on a young woman. The way that the film looks at the subject matter is fresh and was the right move. The viewer is engaged on multiple levels: You have the intelligence of the courtroom drama meeting with the horror of the exorcism being performed, which makes for a hell of a fun film to watch. If you didn’t like it, give it another shot. If you haven’t seen it, then you need to check it out. I recommend giving it a couple of viewings.