Fear the DEVIL. SATANIC and occult HORROR movies
Satanic forces can take various forms, and due to the ability to metamorphose and camouflage (in the Christian perspective, all forms of magic and non-religious forms of contact with spirits are equivalent to Satanism) are even more disturbing. Horror cinema, drawing on the basic psychological and cultural resources of fear, also willingly used the theme of demonic forces piercing reality (I discussed this issue in more detail in a separate article). Films dealing with occult topics can be conventionally grouped into a subgenre of satanic horror, offering a whole range of manifestations of devilishness – from literal visions of Satan and his servants invading the peace of law-abiding people to anthropological meditations on the nature of evil and the true face of the Devil. Below are ten movies built around the theme of Satanism and the occult that every horror lover should know.
Eye of the Devil
Satan, naturally closer to nature and chthonic contexts than to the blooms of civilization, particularly liked the influence through demonic cults, most often entrusting him with their interests in matters of prosperity and prosperity of life. The theme of a dark sect is the main plot of the 1966 Eye of the Devil, starring David Niven, Sharon Tate and David Hemmings. The latter two play demonic siblings in J. Lee Thompson’s film, apparently leading a satanic cult in a certain French vineyard. Niven, in turn, plays the role of the heir to the estate, who is forced to make a cruel sacrifice in exchange for the return of the estate to fertility. In The Devil’s Eye, the central character is the heir’s wife, who confronts the terrifying truth about the evil forces in which her family is entangled. The film offers everything that is essential in the occult genre – a grim mansion, an important role of the fruits of the earth, an astronomical cycle, a beautiful and disturbing witch and a blood sacrifice.
At the other extreme in relation to satanic groups, there are visions of a personal confrontation of an individual with the forces of evil. In this variant, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is an indisputable classic, whose heroine carries the Antichrist himself. Much has been written about the work starring Mia Farrow, but it is worth paying attention once again to the intriguing way in which the satanic topic is addressed by Polański – in his camera, a satanic conspiracy and the influence of impure forces intertwine with the paranoid sense of entrapment in which young wife falls facing the vision of motherhood. The ambiguity of Rosemary’s Baby is also one of the key techniques of occult horror, focusing on blurring the boundaries between insanity and possession and suggesting the inseparable intertwining of organically real fear with satanic energy.
The connection between Satan and difficult mental states experienced by man is explored bravely by Lars von Trier in Antichrist. The guiding idea around which the controversial Dane builds this extraordinary psychological horror is the thesis: “Nature is Satan’s church.” Creating a brutal and piercing study of depression and personal trauma, von Trier builds a bridge between sensuality and evil, reconstructing the classic trope of anthropological belonging of sensual experiences to the demonic realm. Antichrist, while making heavy use of obscenity, draws its horror from the obscure, dark connection with the demonic Nature experienced by the two protagonists. Playing out the popular oppositions of nature – culture, masculine – feminine, reason – emotions, von Trier creates a unique cinematic vision of Satanism considered as a certain cultural pattern – at the same time solidly scaring and shocking.
Mario Bava is one of the most eminent names in the history of horror, the father of the Italian trend of the genre and one of its most important pioneers, who gave horror cinema its contemporary shape. One of his best and most famous films is the debut Black Sunday, inspired by a story by Nikolai Gogol. In the plot of the 1960 painting, the titular mask belongs to a Moldavian witch killed with it in the 17th century. Brought back to life by blood magic, she tries to achieve immortality at the expense of a young girl. The expressive aesthetics proposed by Bava highlights the suggestive traces of a curse lasting for centuries, lust for eternity preying on the vitality of the young, the erotic-thanatic brilliance of witchcraft and the deplorable effects of imprudent handling of dark forces. Black Sunday is one of the most perfect films evoking the motif of a witch sold to evil, catalysing the forces of hell in a cruel theater of destruction. In addition, it is also a great example of giving symbolic power to a sinister artifact, which is also a recurring theme in the context of the occult.
In Ari Aster’s debut, satanic inclinations remain undisclosed for quite a long time, but when the theme of a demonic cult and dark, complex rituals performed by its members enters the scene, the film turns into a nerve-wracking vision of breaking down under the pressure of the titular occult heritage. Allowing himself literal escapades into the world of satanic-magical symbols, Aster does not lose sight of the psychological inclinations of history, creating an intriguing, “neoclassical” horror spectacle, full of both the highest flight of scare grammar and metaphorical overtones that give the film depth. A few years after the premiere, Hereditary can already be called a horror classic, which, in addition to visionary freshness, offers a kind of renaissance of direct use of satanic cult motifs – and a renaissance of the highest quality.
The Blood on Satan's Claw
Folklore with its magical thinking is a sphere in which devilish inclinations manifest themselves naturally. That is why classic folk horror is also a model occult horror (if we play with divisions, both trends can be combined into a larger category of pagan horror). We’re talking about The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a memorable film by Piers Haggard. At the center of the disturbing intrigue is a satanic cult formed by adolescents and young people, led by the seductive Angel. The film is full of sexual overtones, combining satanic powers with erotic debauchery in a recognizable gesture of contrasting sensuality and rational ethics, additionally introducing the subtext of social commentary on youth movements. Haggard’s suspenseful film, however, works above all as a textbook horror movie, building an appropriately ominous atmosphere around a demonic revelation, as well as an action full of gut-wrenching scenes developing (in a satisfying way) around the main theme.
Although the name of the Antichrist does not appear in the title of this film, the work of Richard Donner from 1976 is undoubtedly one of the first ones that come to mind when thinking about the term “satanic film” (largely thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s phenomenal soundtrack, already rooted in the tissue of pop culture). While Rosemary was yet to give birth to the devil’s spawn, the Thorn couple had to raise the demonic offspring. Although more than forty years have passed since the premiere, and many moviegoers know The Omen almost by heart, the individual scenes happening around little Damien are still chilling to this day. Donner made sure that the satanic aura surrounding the boy was at the same time clearly saturated with evil and understated – and thus more terrifying. Anyway, I think The Omen is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, and neither reruns nor the passage of time change that.
The Devil Rides Out
The Devil Rides Out is actually nothing more than another variant of the motif of a mysterious cult repeated many times in the 1960s and 1970s, with which the protagonists have to confront. However, Terence Fisher’s film is distinguished by a truly sensational intrigue, which begins with an investigation conducted by the main character (Christopher Lee, exceptionally cast in a positive role). In the course of the plot, we will get sequences of satanic rituals, revelations of a real demon, magical duels and possessions, which form a tense story. The Devil Rides Out is one of the strict classics of Hammer’s production and is one of the most frequently referred to in the context of images of satanic sects in movies. This is justified, because it is actually a class job (of course, embedded in the convention typical of the horror cinema of the 1960s) and a very effective presentation of the threads of black magic and devilishness.
The Wicker Man
Satan in Robin Hardy’s film takes the form of a pagan deity, but don’t be fooled – the same dark force behind the iconic British island sect is behind the French vintners in Eye of the Devil or the cruel youth in The Blood on Satan’s Claw. In The Wicker Man, themes of cult, Satanism, occult paganism and cruel micro-society are intertwined in one of the most memorable horror films in history. It’s nothing that compared to some movies from the sub-genre, and even this list, The Wicker Man is not spectacular in terms of the technique and form of inducing fear. Hardy’s main thing is the climate, which evokes an atmosphere of bizarre menace and barely perceptible madness that surrounds the guilty spirit of Sergeant Howie. Hardly any scene of a pagan ritual is as piercing as the climax of the 1973 film with the legendary plot twist.
The VVitch: A New-England Folktale
Just as Hereditary can be regarded as a kind of renaissance of the literal use of satanic sect motifs, Robert Eggers’ The Witch (also his debut) should be called a spectacular journey to the very heart of darkness, rediscovering the essence of occult horror (or even horror in general). Creating a vision of an arduous existence with prolonged exposure to paranoia and metaphysical fear, Eggers phenomenally visualized this kind of tension that is difficult to grasp and name, which lies at the heart of horror. In The Witch, the heroine’s perception and the dark magnetism of the forests around her gradually merge into one, appropriating religion, anger and frustrations along the way. This film is therefore a kind of vivisection of the forces driving horror stories, a story about the genesis of occult and satanic motifs. For the sub-genre discussed here, Eggers’ film is, in a way, a fundamental work, crowning its long traditions and cultural inclusion in the context.