“Devil,” the new M. Night Shyamalan-conceived film about being stuck in an elevator with the Prince of Darkness, will be possessing theaters soon and promises at least one of two results: sending audiences out of multiplexes shaking from fear or laughter.
It’s tough to know, while you’re making a movie about the scariest entity in the Western world, if the lasting effect will be a terror-filled experience for generations to come or a punchline on par with “Electric Boogaloo.”
Obviously, most filmmakers are hoping for immortality with the former. But when the devil’s involved things can sometimes go very wrong. For example ...
'The Exorcist,' 1973
Who’s being demonized: Spunky 70s kid Linda Blair, so sweet and adorable for the first 20 minutes of the film. Then she begins to act out: peeing on the carpet, telling strangers they’ll be dying soon, that sort of thing. Nothing a good child psychiatrist can’t fix. But when an invisible force begins hurling her into walls, they have to call in priestly backup.
Most hellish moment: Something so indelibly horrible that, even today, almost 40 years after the fact, it defies polite description. It involves a crucifix, how’s that?
Eternally frightening? Fully. The gold standard of modern gothic horror.
'Exorcist II: The Heretic,' 1977
Who’s being demonized: Poor Linda Blair. Again. This time they hook her up to a nonsense machine called a “synchronizer” and some locusts that are really Styrofoam packing peanuts painted brown are blown around the cast. Richard Burton is drunk. Blair wound up in “Roller Boogie” not long after. If you want proof that the devil is a weakling and easily trounced by even the most inept techniques, here’s your movie.
Most hellish moment: When the studio pulled it from theaters to be re-edited.
Eternally frightening? Thanks to the part where Linda Blair tap dances, it’s more like eternally beloved by connoisseurs of extra-bad movies. Considered by “The Official Razzie Movie Guide” to be among the top 10 “best bad films” ever made. Luckily, it would be out-idioted by “The Car” a couple years later. That’s the one about the car that’s possessed by the devil.
'The Omen,' 1976
Who’s being demonized: Every single person who crosses little 6-year-old Damien’s path. And though it’s pretty clear from the number of dead bodies left in his wake that he’s the antichrist, no one seems to notice the 666 engraved in his head until it’s too late.
Most hellish moment: In the real world, facilitating your own mother’s death in a staircase fall would be the greatest cause for alarm, but this movie’s coolest jolt involves the nanny’s drama-queenish public suicide.
Eternally frightening? Nope. You find yourself rooting for the enigmatic, Mona Lisa-smiling demon child.
'Rosemary's Baby,' 1968
Who’s being demonized: Mia Farrow. She’s got a cool husband, a great haircut and she lives in some sweet Manhattan real estate. And then she becomes pregnant, isolated, paranoid and, yes, stalked by super-creepy geriatric Satanists. It doesn’t help her case that she’s carrying the devil’s fetus.
Most hellish moment: The final christening scene is a legendary moment of climactic horror and will make you look twice at every 70-year-old person you meet from that point onward. The part where she has to have sex with the devil isn’t much fun either.
Eternally frightening? A classic of paranoid fears fulfilled, one of the greatest inescapable doom movies ever.
'Race With the Devil,' 1975
Who’s being demonized: Loretta Swit, Peter Fonda, Lara Parker and Warren Oates, on vacation in a behemoth Winnebago, stumble across a Satanic ritual in a rural town. For their crime of accidentally looking at people in robes standing around a fire, they are mercilessly chased and hunted.
Most hellish moment: The spooky ritual-spying moment is the kind of B-movie creepout that caused ongoing nightmares in children of the 1970s who were supposed to be asleep in the back of the station wagon while their parents watched this schlocky thing at the drive-in. It’s no surprise that the Eli Roth-produced “The Last Exorcism,” in theaters now, quotes liberally from that scene.
Eternally frightening? Not really. If you watch it today the biggest question on your mind will be, “Maybe they should think about ditching the huge recreational vehicle so they can hide themselves better. Or at least escape faster.”
'House of the Devil,' 2009
Who’s being demonized: A babysitter in a spooky house on the outskirts of town. A spooky house owned by spooky people. And there’s something upstairs. No it’s not from the 1980s. It’s a clever, retro-minded, “Satanic panic” film from 2009 that rejected modern horror film aesthetics and reached to the past for its jolts.
Most hellish moment: Multiple moments of anxiety, compounding the sense of dread. It builds to a typically scary/silly climax but it’s really the ride, more than the destination, that leaves you shaken with this one.
Eternally frightening? Destined for cult status thanks to a lack of box-office. Don’t watch it when you’re home alone at night.
'Paranormal Activity,' 2009
Who’s being demonized: A young couple who think they have a ghost in their house. They’ve got more than that.
Most hellish moment: The genius of this movie is its ritualistic return to the same shot of an open bedroom door leading to a dark hallway. You know something is down that hall. You just don’t know what. And in theatrical screenings, every time night fell and the surveillance camera aimed itself at that black hole, the audience would whimper.
Eternally frightening? There’s no telling if it will hold up over time, but it struck a chord and is currently still pretty darn frightening when viewed in the right circumstances. Also known as NOT ON YOUR IPHONE.
'Satan's Cheerleaders,' 1977
Who’s being demonized: Horny cheerleaders, the kind only made in the 1970s, the kind who jiggle for their own enjoyment and make a lot of corny sex puns, thanks to screenwriters much older than themselves. They’re kidnapped by a cult led by a devil-worshipping janitor.
Most hellish moment: One of the cheerleaders is secretly a witch and she uses her bad-special-effects-powers to turn the tables on the devil worshippers. Of course, the real hell is watching another raped-by-Satan moment. It’s almost like it was a law of cinema back then, all the Satanic rape.
Eternally frightening? Eternally grindhouse yet frighteningly tame.
'Angel Heart,' 1987
Who’s being demonized: Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet, in a New Orleans that had yet to become a real life horror show.
Most hellish moment: For most audiences it was the chicken-blood-and-Denise-Huxtable sex scene. But the most genuinely disturbing aspect of this movie was Robert De Niro as a long-fingernailed Satan. The scene where he cracks a hard-boiled egg by rolling it on a table, those gross fingernails in extreme close-up, is one you won’t shake.
Eternally frightening? None of it was scary to begin with.
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Video: 'Devil': Sept. 17
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