Back in the sixties, comedian Flip Wilson was a wellspring of popular catch phrases. One of his most popular sayings of all was, "The Devil made me do it." Although Wilson's cheery disclaimer was intended purely facetiously, we know that the idea of the supernatural possession of an unwilling host by an evil spirit has been taken quite seriously down through the centuries. On the screen, it has been the basis for a number of thrillers, including this year's "Fallen." For a sampling of earlier screen treatments of possession, look for these titles on home video.
"The Innocents" (1961). Henry James's classic novel, "The Turn of the Screw," is a masterpiece of subtlety. It may be a horrifying story of the possession of two young children by the malevolent spirits of their former governess and her lover. On the other hand, there may be nothing more at work than the fevered imagination of their current governess. The book slowly but inexorably ratchets up the disquieting mood without ever really resolving the ambiguity for the reader. Adapting such a carefully crafted literary work for the screen was a tall order, but director Jack Clayton and screenwriters Truman Capote and John Mortimer came about as close as anyone could have to capturing James's elusive atmosphere of dread. Deborah Kerr as the governess turns in one of her finest performances.
"Diary of a Madman" (1963). Vincent Price stars as a 19th Century French magistrate who is compelled to kill a condemned man in self-defense. In the process, the evil spirit that made the man a murderer enters the magistrate's body, causing him to go on a killing spree of his own. Gradually the unfortunate magistrate comes to realize that there is no way to destroy the evil that dwells within him without taking his own life in doing so. This shivery little tale was adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant.
"Rosemary's Baby" (1968). Ira Levin's novel about modern-day witchcraft in New York City was blessed with a top-notch team of creative personnel in making its transition to the screen. Mia Farrow leads the excellent cast in the title role, a woman whose pregnancy is co-opted by a Manhattan coven so that she can bear the child of Satan himself. Director Roman Polanski, with his lively visual imagination and affinity for the bizarre and horrific, executes the dramatic escalation from apprehension to abject terror with consummate skill.
"The Exorcist" (1973). The one that everyone remembers, of course, is director William Friedkin's vivid realization of screenwriter William Peter Blatty's tale of contemporary possession and exorcism. Blatty's original novel had been a runaway best seller, as a result of which he found himself in charge of the film adaptation as producer, a privilege not often accorded a writer. Linda Blair made a career for herself on the strength of her portrayal of Regan MacNeil, the twelve year old victim of an ancient demon. Max von Sydow, a veteran of numerous Ingmar Bergman films, brings a certain gravity to his portrayal of Father Karras. The elderly priest has exorcised this demon once before, but that was when he was a much younger man, and even then the strain nearly killed him.
"Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn" (1987). In 1983 writer-director Sam Raimi stood the horror film world on its ear with the release of "The Evil Dead," a shoestring production in which the body count and buckets of stage blood were exceeded only by the inventiveness and sheer energy of the visual style. The sequel, however, is an even better way to experience Raimi's special brand of madness. It isn't so much a sequel as it is a remake. This is the film Raimi would have made in the first place had he had a budget to work with. The action is precipitated by a reading of the Sumerian Book of the Dead in a remote backwoods cabin. Roused by these charmed words, an evil spirit takes possession of the cabin's luckless inhabitants and all hell breaks loose. It's not for the squeamish, but if you can get past the gore you'll find that Raimi and his cast aren't taking any of this seriously. They're having a smashing good time tearing the screen to rags and tatters. It's almost as if they were as possessed as their characters, joyously helpless vessels of the spirit of cinema.