Holy hell: 10 of the greatest religious horror movies

As The Nun 2 wimples her way into cinemas, the power of Christ compels us to check out the competition.

Matt Glasby, author of The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film, lists the greatest religious-themed horror films that deserve our praise, be they all-time classics or lesser-known gems.

The Exorcist (1973)

The grandaddy of the genre, William Friedkin’s 1973 tale of demonic possession, adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own 1971 novel, is based—yikes—on a true-ish story. It concerns Regan (Linda Blair), an ordinary pre teen who starts exhibiting some extraordinary symptoms—moving furniture, speaking in tongues, masturbating with a cross—until Catholic priests Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) arrive to save her soul. Awash with blood, sweat and spew, the final hour is among the most memorable in the genre.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Christianity is the outlier in Robin Hardy’s fruity folk horror, released in 1973 and based on a clever script by Anthony Shaffer. Called to the Scottish island of Summerisle to find a missing girl, devout Detective Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is shocked to discover a pagan society lead by the speechifying Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Amid all the shagging and singing, Howie wanders like a lamb to the slaughter, his fate sealed by his faith.

The Omen (1976)

If Richard Donner’s classy 1976 horror was an attempt to snaffle some of The Exorcist’s box office success, it sure worked. When their son Damien (Harvey Stephens) starts acting up, diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife Kathy (Lee Remick) begin to wonder if he might be the spawn of Satan. We’ve all been there. Cue some amazing Final Destination-style kills, including photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner) showstoppingly losing his head, and Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) being turned into a holy kebab.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

The second film in John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (which also includes The Thing and In The Mouth of Madness) remains chronically underseen. Based on a screenplay Carpenter wrote as Martin Quatermass (a nod to the character created by British spooky sci-fi whizz Nigel Kneale), this 1987 effort concerns a vat of sentient green liquid that just might be an embodiment of Satan. Donald Pleasance plays the concerned priest keeping watch in a monastery basement; Victor Wong the quantum physicist brought in to investigate. With aliens, AIDs metaphors and an Alice Cooper cameo all in play, it’s never dull.

Martyrs (2008)

Once seen, never forgotten, Pascal Laugier’s 2008 masterpiece is the standout of the New French Extremity movement. Orphans Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) and her friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) are on the hunt for the people who abducted Lucie as a child. After killing a seemingly innocent family, they uncover a cult headed by Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégan) who torture young women until they see god, or die. It may sound exploitative, but Laugier is just as concerned with the effects of violence as the violence itself, and the climax is surprisingly profound.

The Last Exorcism (2010)

Daniel Stamm’s sophisticated found-footage flick divided audiences when it came out in 2010. Some thought, after such a careful build-up, its balls-to-the-wall ending was too much. Others were correct—it’s awesome. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is an evangelical minister who performs fake exorcisms. Tired of the deception, he asks a camera crew to follow him as he visits the home of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), whose dad, Louis (Louis Herthum), believes her to be possessed. Scary, surprising and expertly acted, the result has much to say about the intersection between belief and self-delusion.

The Borderlands (2013)

Also known as Final Prayer, Elliot Goldner’s striking 2013 debut is another found-footage effort exploring the vagaries of faith, although nobody disagrees about its extraordinary ending. Tech expert Gray Parker (Robin Hill), Brother Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) and Father Mark Amidon (Aidan McArdle)—actually an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, dad joke fans—are sent by the Vatican to investigate reports of supernatural activity at a spooky 13th-century church in Devon. But the evil they encounter is way older than that.

A Dark Song (2016)

Perhaps the most underrated title on this list. Irish writer/director’s Liam Gavin’s 2016 heart-rending horror follows an occult ritual performed by grumpy expert Joseph Solomon (Sightseers’ Steve Oram) for grieving mother Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker). The kicker? It takes months. With the characters locked away from the world in a lonely mansion, performing all kind of arcane exercises together, the film slowly chips away at our cynicism, so that, when the showstopping climax brings with it angels, demons and the possibility of redemption, we’re believers too.

Saint Maud (2019)

English writer/director Rose Glass’s 2019 debut blew the socks off anyone lucky enough to go in unprepared. Devout nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) becomes the carer for dying dancer—and atheist—Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) in a depressing British seaside town. Though it remains tantalisingly unclear what’s real, and what’s happening in Maud’s overheating brain, she starts to hear messages from god telling her to save Amanda’s soul—even if she doesn’t want saving. If the build-up is intense, the last act is incredible, in all senses of the word.

The Medium (2021)

Shot on location in the north-east of Thailand, this immersive chiller from Shutter director Banjong Pisanthanakun and the producer of South Korea’s The Wailing really creeps up on you. Local shaman Nim (Sawanee Utomma), who claims to be possessed by the spirit of the goddess Ba Yan, is the subject of a documentary we see being filmed. But when her niece, Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech), is chosen to take over, she starts acting very strangely indeed. If it’s not Ba Yan inside her, then who—or what—is it?