10 great religious horror films

Omens, exorcists and unholy doings... Saint Maud joins a hallowed tradition of horror films tackling the dark side of faith and spirituality.

Saint Maud (2019)

Not to be dramatic, but Saint Maud might be the closest thing to a cinematic religious experience this writer has had all year. Among the most hyped titles at last year’s BFI London Film Festival, the debut feature by writer-director Rose Glass has since received almost universal critical acclaim. There’s an abundance of headlines naming it the ‘saviour of British cinema’, which is a lot of pressure to put on a single film. 

At the heart of it, Saint Maud is about the relationship between one young woman and God. It just happens to be an extremely troubled young woman who has sublimated her overpowering sense of guilt and masochistic tendencies into an obsessive, quasi-physical relationship with God. Maud doesn’t see or hear God, but she feels him. This simple conceit, combined with the high intensity of the film’s unfurling horrors and the ultra-committed performance by lead actor Morfydd Clark, makes for a visceral cinematic experience. 

Although it’s more than one thing, Saint Maud is just the latest example of the hallowed tradition of religious horror on screen. Organised religion, cults and the clergy have long been fodder for horror filmmakers. The pomp, ceremony, rites and rules of any religion can create terrifying tableaux but also offer a clear path to safety and salvation. There’s something terrifying about the extremities of belief, of what can come from the intensity of someone’s faith.

Like Saint Maud, which is in cinemas now, each of the films below provides an unholy thrill-ride. 

The Devils (1971)

Director: Ken Russell

The Devils (1971)

One of the most controversial films ever made, Ken Russell’s The Devils remains a must see. Subversive, grotesque and erotic, it’s about the witch-hunt against the 17th-century priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who is accused of witchcraft because, well, too many people fancy him. 

Based on the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun, Russell’s film is more a historical drama about hysteria and the abuse of power than a straight-up horror film. And yet, Russell’s trademark excess makes The Devils a provocative, difficult watch even now. Film critic Mark Kermode has been a years-long advocate of the film, and uncovered previously lost footage that made for an extended version of the film released by the BFI in 2012. 

The Exorcist (1973)

Director: William Friedkin

The Exorcist (1973)

There couldn’t be a list, nay a conversation, about religious horror without mentioning The Exorcist. William Friedkin’s masterpiece is a classic of cinema, horror and otherwise. An actress (Ellen Burstyn) notices that her 12-year-old daughter, Reagan (Linda Blair), has started exhibiting odd behaviour and suffering unexplained bruises. She exhausts all avenues trying to find help, and at the end of her wits ends up connecting with Father Karras (Jason Miller), a young priest who is struggling with his own faith. It’s he who recognises that Reagan is being possessed by a demonic force. 

Friedkin’s film is responsible for giving several generations plenty of nightmares with its singular imagery, and its fascinating production history has been explored through books, documentaries and podcasts. Although it remains horrifying to this day, The Exorcist is also a thoughtful exploration of faith, grief and parenthood. It’s always worth revisiting on Halloween.

The Omen (1976)

Director: Richard Donner

The Omen (1976)

When the rich, powerful Thorns (Gregory Peck and Lee Remick) adopted baby Damien, they didn’t know they were adopting the child of Satan. Strange things start happening around the child when he turns 5. He refuses to go into a church. Animals can’t stand him. His nanny commits suicide at his birthday party. It quickly becomes clear that Damien is not only not human, but the Antichrist himself, whose coming is being orchestrated by a group of Satanists.

Much like The Exorcist, The Omen spawned a franchise of sequels, TV movies, a 2006 remake and a TV series (Damien). But aside from the third instalment, which features Sam Neill as a grown-up Damien moving into political power, nothing quite reaches the heights of the original. Peck is fantastically stoic as the diplomat who is faced with the ordeal of deciding if he would be able to murder a child in order to save the world.

Carrie (1976)

Director: Brian De Palma

Carrie (1976)

Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel is an indisputable horror classic. But aside from the psychic powers of its bullied protagonist, the truly terrifying part of the film is Carrie’s religiously fanatical, abusive mother. 

Played by Piper Laurie, Margaret White is an all-consuming dark force who dominates her daughter and injects her with doubt, self-hate and guilt. Her faith is riddled with misogynistic undertones that she uses to justify abusing her daughter. While Carrie is the one with psychic powers that turn deadly, it’s Margaret who locks Carrie in a closet of mirrors and subjects her to endless speeches demonising her body. This horrifically toxic mother-daughter dynamic turns into a supernatural tug-of-war that provides the real horror of the story.

The Exorcist III (1990)

Director: William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist III (1990)

It must be borderline impossible to make a worthy sequel to one of the greatest horror films ever made, and none of the films in The Exorcist series really live up to the genius of the first one. That is, except The Exorcist III. Adapted and directed by William Peter Blatty (the author of the original novel), the film stands as a solidly frightening horror in its own right. 

Set 17 years after the events of the first film, it follows Lieutenant Kinderman (George C. Scott) as he investigates a series of murders that have all the trademarks of the Gemini Killer, but for the slight issue that he was executed long ago. Blatty had to battle with the studio over creative control of the film, but despite their interference, he was proud of the finished product, even remarking that “it’s a more frightening film than The Exorcist”. 

The Prophecy (1995)

Director: Gregory Widen

The Prophecy (1995)

In The Prophecy, angels are real and they’re at war with each other. The Archangel Gabriel (Christopher Walken) descends onto the human plane in a long black duster to rage war against God, usher in a second hell and block all souls from entering heaven.

With an extremely fun (and very 90s) supporting cast including Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer, Eric Stoltz as the Angel Simon and Elias Koteas as a detective who’s lost his faith, this is a daring, if occasionally convoluted entry into the religious horror canon, which spawned 4 sequels of declining quality. It’s Walken’s chilling performance as Gabriel that makes the original. Frankly, any franchise that stars Walken as a murderous angel deserves to be better known.

Stigmata (1999)

Director: Rupert Wainwright

Stigmata (1999)

This millennial mystery wades enjoyably into the realms of Catholic conspiracy. When Frankie, an atheist hairdresser in Pittsburgh starts exhibiting stigmata (wounds that correspond to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ), Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne) is sent to investigate. The film shoots graphic gore and possessions through a very late-90s, MTV-influenced horror lens, with Patricia Arquette dialling up the dramatics as the unwilling woman at the centre of a murky conspiracy that has nothing to do with her.

Nothing in this film should be taken seriously, but Stigmata elevates the concept of Catholic conspiracy to ridiculous levels, including corrupt clergy, high-level theological secrets and a beyond-the-grave possession. This is not by any stretch a great film. But it’s a helluva ride.

Constantine (2005)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Constantine (2005)

There was a time, before the Keanu renaissance that came with the John Wick franchise, when people didn’t take a film starring Keanu Reeves and based on a cult graphic novel seriously. But Constantine deserves a second look, for its stylish visuals, excellent world-building and an icy cool performance by the man himself.

He stars as John Constantine, a sort of paranormal detective who is trying to bribe his way into heaven by killing off as many demons as possible before he succumbs to lung cancer. Things get a bit complicated when he stumbles on a plot to bring forth the Antichrist. Tilda Swinton supports as the Angel Gabriel, with Shia LaBeouf as Constantine’s assistant and Peter Stormare as the most underrated Satan the screen has ever seen. 

Red State (2011)

Director: Kevin Smith

Red State (2011)

Red State is an outlier in the filmography of Kevin Smith, a director better known for stoner pop culture comedies and extensive one-man Q&As. A group of teenagers are tricked into thinking they’re going to meet a woman for a sexual encounter. Instead, they fall into a trap set by the Five Points Trinity Church, an extremist, homophobic, hate-filled group who sacrifice people they deem promiscuous to assuage the wrath of God. The church is led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), whose pure devotion to this idea of sin and the end of times rings terrifyingly close to real-life cult leaders. 

As the teens try to escape, the church becomes surrounded by the authorities as they try to avoid a bloodbath. Loosely inspired by the Westboro Baptist Church and the Waco siege, Red State is surprisingly nihilistic stuff.

The Sacrament (2013)

Director: Ti West

The Sacrament (2013)

Based on the real-life events of the Jonestown massacre, when more than 900 people took their own lives in a mass suicide led by cult leader Jim Jones, The Sacrament is a nasty, unflinching look at paranoia and herd mentality. In this found footage horror, 2 Vice journalists (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg, both figureheads of the mumblecore movement) head into a reclusive religious community led by The Father (Gene Jones) to try and rescue the sister of a photographer colleague. Once immersed in the community’s isolated lifestyle, they face the intoxicating and dangerous hold that The Father has on his followers.

Although the found footage conceit might be played out for many viewers, Ti West gives the sub-genre a fresh spin here, and the format makes The Sacrament’s last 30 minutes feel especially unrelenting and horrific. 

  • Saint Maud, backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas now