My Top 10 Occult Movies – Full List

Having been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of this short review series, I’ve received several requests for the full list of my favourite occult movies in a single, convenient blog post…so here they are in all their otherworldly glory! Just hit the links below to see each separate review. Maybe you’ll find something new, or maybe you’ll discover a different way of looking at an old favourite. Enjoy the reviews and thank you all for your continued support.

1 – Excalibur (1981) “They made themselves God, and Christ has abandoned us!”

2 – The Mothman Prophecies (2002) “You will see her, in time.”

3 – The Ninth Gate (1999) “Some books are dangerous, not to be opened with impunity.”

4 – The Sin Eater (2003) “The terrible thing about the truth is that sometimes you find it.”

5 – The Medusa Touch (1978) “He sounded quite mad, and yet I believed every word he said.”

6 – Signs (2002) “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

7 – The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) “There are no injections against the Devil.”

8 – Lord of Illusions (1995) “I escaped from the grave, so I have to give something to the grave in return.”

9 – The Keep (1983) “You can’t stay here…no-one stays here.”

10 – The Believers (1987) “One life is all we ask.”

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 2

The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

“You will see her, in time.”

Director Mark Pellington’s hugely disturbing exploration of prophesy, obsession, grief and loss is one of the subtlest and most unsettling examples of the modern storyteller’s art. Slowly brought to the boil by some excellent cinematography and the expert use of a non-musical sound score, The Mothman Prophecies manages to make the fantastical feel entirely credible.

Loosely based on accounts of the real-life Silver Bridge disaster, The Mothman Prophecies follows the story of a troubled man searching for answers that simply do not exist. Expertly shot in the freezing emptiness of flyover country, the bleak photography and slow-burn storyline somehow produce an ambient grey chill that seeps out of the screen and settles on the necks and spines of an unsuspecting audience.

Richard Gere steps outside his normal typecast boundaries to deliver a good performance as John Klein, a high-flying journalist who is haunted by the sudden death of his wife. That haunting takes a dangerous turn as it begins to manifest outside of Klein’s own imagination, inexplicably drawing him to an obscure town and leaving him with no knowledge of how he arrived there. As he probes deeper into his own experiences, Klein is forced to accept that the course of his life has been influenced by the same psychological contagion that’s consuming this icy backwater Virginian backwater.

The ever reliable Laura Linney plays the Main Street sheriff who’s struggling to come to terms with the strange sightings and bizarre events that are so unsettling her once peaceful community. Her well rounded character brings her own brand of hard-won wisdom to the increasingly sinister events as they unfold. However, the unsung star of this movie is undoubtedly Will Patton. His portrayal of a small town working man is the very antithesis of the learned mystic who seeks out prophetic powers. This makes Patton’s portrayal of Gordon Smallwood all the more compelling as the luckless labourer is driven first out of his mind and then into his grave by the Mothman’s obscure prophecies, predictions and pronouncements.

This is a brilliantly conceived movie that embraces the Mothman symbolism as somehow both cause and warning of impending disaster. The on-screen action constantly recycles and re-imagines that symbolism to form an overarching pattern that can be felt intuitively but never understood rationally. The Mothman is everywhere, and yet nowhere to be found. His eyes shine through the warning lights of our safety-obsessed world, whilst his voice echoes through the static buzz of phone lines and electrical systems, with no point of origin and no observable design.

Perhaps more than anything else, The Mothman Prophecies is an examination of chance and chaos, those universal forces we attempt to extinguish through learning, reason and ever-increasing organisation. Just like the point, the line and the circle, the Mothman’s mark is an integral part the Divine language, meaning that we unwittingly codify him into our collective experience, and sometimes find him waiting in the shadows of the seemingly ordered world we make for ourselves. We will never be free of the Mothman because we carry him with us wherever we go.

The great strength of the Mothman Prophecies is its unwavering commitment to a real and enduring mystery. The otherworldly prognosticator known only as Indrid Cold is never explained or justified, nor can he be. Is he real or imagined, angel or demon, benign or malevolent? The only certainty is that his appearance heralds disaster for both the communities he blights and those unlucky souls who hear his call from beyond the veil. This stubborn but well-judged refusal to allow the viewer any satisfying conclusion infuses the idea of the inexplicable into the viewer’s mind, where it lingers long after the credits have rolled.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy one of the most unremittingly creepy movies of modern times.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 3

The Ninth Gate (1999)

“Some books are dangerous, not to be opened with impunity.”

Controversial director Roman Polanski manages to pull off the difficult Hitchcock-esque trick of keeping the viewer enthralled by the fairly sedate story of a search for forbidden knowledge hidden among the closely guarded manuscript collections of Europe’s ageing dynasties.

Johnny Depp actually plays a character, rather than a caricature in his portrayal of Dean Corso, a mercenary freelance bibliophile. Concerned only with profit, Corso is employed to authenticate a rare and valuable occult work, which is itself steeped in rumour and folklore. As his investigations continue, a formerly hidden, and yet altogether darker design slowly reveals itself, finally crossing the boundary between historical curiosity and contemporary reality.

Veteran actor Frank Langella is definitely the unsung hero of The Ninth Gate, and he’s more than a match for Depp on screen. His understated menace as the pathologically cold publishing magnate Boris Balkan completely convinces the viewer that they are in the presence of a man who has already gone to, and will go to any lengths to achieve his dark design. He is the shadowy and obsessive puppet master, controlling events from within his private library or from the end of the phone line, seemingly much closer to the action than he appears to be.

The excellent screenwriting and direction effectively immerses the viewer in Corso’s journey from disinterested sceptic to fervent believer, as he is drawn ever deeper into a hidden world of secret power, and those archetypal ideas from whence that power flows. Every clue followed and revelation discovered is skilfully crafted to convince both character and viewer that there is indeed a vein of fundamental truth running through these esoteric texts that the modern world has deliberately chosen first to ignore and then to forget.

Any casual or serious student of occultism will have a field day with the symbolism so skilfully woven throughout this feast of hidden metaphors and mixed messages. At the same time, the Ninth Gate is also a very playful movie, which somehow manages to exploit endless clichés of the genre while still remaining fresh and entertaining. The homages to both Hammer and Wheatley as the movie builds to its conclusion are some personal favourites.

The Ninth Gate also reminds us of the old adage that the destination is nothing without the journey, as Dean Corso undergoes his own everyday initiation into the black arts, fearing neither noose nor fire, to play the greatest of games and win.

Like all great occult books and movies, The Ninth Gate can be revisited time and time again, always offering something new and fresh as life’s journey changes, shapes and influences the eyes through which we see it. Watch the trailer here, and also a nice clip of Dean Corso and Baroness Kessler and find yourself immersed inside the inescapable riddles of the dark arts before you even know it’s happened.

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 4

The Sin Eater* (2003)

“The terrible thing about the truth is that sometimes you find it.”

With this stylishly shot tale of intrigue and Vatican politics, the modern movie industry shines a technicolour spotlight on what had previously been an obscure and secretive folk ritual. Screenwriter and director Brian Helgeland expertly blends arcane ritual with Catholic chic as it lifts the lid on a timeless world of forbidden knowledge and those mortals who seek it out.

The late Heath Ledger heads up a cast of well-crafted and entertaining characters as he attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his mentor’s apparent suicide, a cardinal sin for a man who was already excommunicated. Ledger’s portrayal of Alex Bernier puts an accessible face on this tale of high ritual and realpolitik.

Bernier and his friend Thomas Garrett are the last of the Carolingians, a Catholic order that still embraces the unsanitised church of angels and demons, possession and exorcism. Although something of an embarrassment to the modern Vatican orthodoxy, the two young priests are tasked with investigating rumours that their excommunicated mentor had found redemption through the Other, the Sin Eater.

Peter Weller is aging brilliantly, and he’s never looked or sounded better as Cardinal Driscoll, the Vatican power broker and papal pretender who tasks the two priests with confirming the rumours. The church believes that the existence of a man who can bypass papal authority and guide a heretic soul into heaven is something of a theological loose end, a loose end which should’ve been tied up some centuries before.

As their search drags the two friends ever further into darkness, Bernier begins to understand that tracking down the Sin Eater is just the start of his own personal pilgrimage. As he discovers more about that hidden side door into the afterlife, he also sees that same truth reflected in himself, the course of his own life and the church that set him on his path so many years before. Eventually that newfound knowledge will force him to re-examine all that he believes to be true, and sends his life in an altogether different direction.

Billed as a pretty standard tale of murky goings on in the heart of the Vatican, the profound ideas driving this movie and its wonderfully stylised execution elevate it far above your average Catholicism-is-really-not-that-great yawn fest.

This movie barely seems to be trying as it effortlessly explores the age-old idea of redemption through sacrifice. In this case the Sin Eater assumes the burden of sin himself, thus releasing the soul of the dying and allowing its progression to the afterlife. It also neatly crystallises the endless struggle for truth, and hammers home the stark warning that once discovered, the truth will never allow life to continue as it did before.

Although admittedly on the fanciful side, The Sin Eater is a move that manages to entertain and yet still holds true to its more profound message. Behind the lavish backdrops and frightening effects is a very human story of life, death and self-discovery; beautifully revealed as the aging, world weary Other at last finds peace and is thus reborn and re-imagined for a more modern age.

Watch the trailer here and enjoy number 4 in my occult top 10.

* Also known as “The Order.”

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 7

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

“There are no injections against the Devil”

Possession or Psychosis? Free will or doctor’s orders? Prayer or pills?

Director Scott Derrickson expertly walks the tightrope between supernatural scares and insightful drama to craft a movie that both frightens and thinks in equal measure. No mean feat in such a genre, but solid performances from Tom Wilkinson as Father Richard Moore and Laura Linney as his reluctant yet ambitious attorney add a layer of gravitas to what might otherwise have become a run-of-the-mill supernatural shocker. Jennifer Carpenter deserves a special mention for her brilliant performance in the title role. Her stomach-churning contortions and screeching profanities are a compelling contrast to the demure and modest family girl who makes her first pious appearance on screen. A challenging and far from glamourous role for an aspiring actress, and she rises to the occasion brilliantly.

Although probably a turnoff for hardcore horror fans, the sparing yet expertly imagined special effects produce their fair share of popcorn spilling shocks. This movie is a great reminder to Hollywood that sometimes less is more. Perhaps it’s the incongruous courtroom atmosphere that enables these supernatural scares to punch well above their weight as the story of Emily’s descent into darkness and death is retold through anecdote and testimony, both inside and outside the courtroom.

The storyline is further strengthened as Father Moore slowly becomes counsel to his own lawyer, warning that the darkness is already working hard to discredit both himself and the church. While initially sceptical, all her old certainties are overshadowed by doubt as she is increasingly haunted by terrifying visions herself. Although faith is still wanting, she is gradually overcome by a genuine desire to learn the truth, and to defend a man whose greatest sin was to respect the wish of a soul in his care.

Based loosely on the true and harrowing story of Annelies Michel,
The Exorcism of Emily Rose expertly drags questions of faith, free will and self-sacrifice away from the abstract orbit of the bar discussion and makes them the central pivot around which the lives and deaths of the characters revolve. This very real examination of faith and freedom is excellently expressed in the relationships between Emily and those around her. The script wisely abandons the yawningly stereotypical fundamentalist father in favour of some far more believable family and friends. Emily’s folks may have lived by the Good Book, but the scriptwriters have resisted the urge to sneer at them for it. In turn the finished movie has rewarded their self-control with a solidity which is often absent in similar works.

This is most definitely a film which captures the vexed and dishonest spirit of our age. We entrust ourselves wholly to medical science, professing blind faith in that which can possess no wisdom. We exult the sovereignty of the self, yet turn viciously on heretics when that sovereign self dissents from secular dogma. In a world where priestly robes are transformed into white coats, a man might still risk all if he crosses the Establishment. It may yet cost him his reputation, his liberty and even his life!

My Top 10 Occult Movies – 10

The Believers (1987)

“One life is all we ask.”

A sprightly Martin Sheen plays psychologist Cal Jamison in this almost forgotten tale of dark power and ruthless ambition. The movie’s more unsettling scenes are fearlessly portrayed by Oscar winning director John Schlesinger, even though they might’ve struggled to make it past the present day’s more politicised censors.

Not for the squeamish or the easily offended, The Believers tells the story of a professional psychologist who finds himself drawn ever deeper into the shadowy, obsessively secretive worlds of Santeria and Palo Mayombe,* its even darker cousin. The themes of group loyalty and unquestioning faith are squarely interrogated by the film’s unflinching portrayal of blood sacrifice, both animal and human.

Almost as though drawn by some invisible force, Jamison finds himself inside a world hidden behind barriers of blood, custom and language, where the forces of light and darkness wage their unceasing war through Santeria’s hybrid system of African, Latin American and Catholic ritual. The result is a deliciously dark and exotic experience, where even the work of the right hand path feels somehow perilous and forbidden.

The Abrahamic theme of sacrifice through devotion are given a compelling and modern makeover as Jamison is forced to the precipice of trading his son’s soul for a future free from pain, unhappiness and doubt. All that is required for this Faustian bargain is a single life, his firstborn.

The archetypal and metaphysical strength of this movie is often lost behind the disguise of a by-the-numbers thriller, but hidden behind that facade is a deeper, more fundamental and far more disturbing narrative flow. Cal Jamison’s fate is sealed early on when he feels compelled to make a pact with the gods of Santeria in order to protect his son. Of course the father will triumph in the final reel, but a bargain is a bargain and the price must be paid. Regla de Ocha will forever cast a shadow across the life of the father, and the lives of his line.

Now sadly consigned to a few dusty VHS tapes and some short footnotes in filmographies, The Believers’ negative reviews by the great and the good have made it certain that those independent thinkers involved in its creation would make a conscious effort to forget it. Although the Eoin Sprott Studio is clearly credited for special effects, the simulated suffering of animals has probably more than played its part in this underrated film’s unusually rapid and almost contrived slide into obscurity.

This is a great shame, because although the movie features some lurid depictions of deals with the divine, the infamous cases of “Adam” and Mark Kilroy should remind us that life and art are often more closely entwined than we care to admit.

Watch the trailer here, and enjoy a movie that may not rank among the greatest ever made, but deserves a lot more respect than it’s hitherto been given.

* – Some practitioners vehemently dispute the negative perception of Palo Mayombe, claiming it is a media construction based on ignorance and misunderstanding. This is a spiritual and moral discussion, and readers must draw their own conclusions.