Accurately discussing the Occult seems to be an impossible task on its surface. Any attempt to analyze what is, by nature, secret and hidden could be quixotic at best, and fraudulent at worst. When it comes to movies, logic warns us that what is being depicted either isn’t truly occultic, or is only partially representative. Nevertheless, a few films have worked their magic more successfully than others over the years.
This article will examine some films which showcase the public face of Occultism through the centuries, mirroring popular perception of the mysterious realm. Others in the list capture genuine fragments of Occult lore, though they paint an incomplete picture by necessity. Try letting these ten classics cast a spell on you.
10. Night of the Demon (1957) – Jacques Tourneur
This British gem of a horror film is the definition of a cult classic. It’s based on a 1911 story by M. R. James called “Casting the Runes.” Any story with the word “runes” in the title promises to be rich in Occult atmosphere, and the film exceeds our wildest hopes.
Night of the Demon wastes no time before diving into the realm of the Gothic. Its early scenes show a professor begging the leader of a satanic cult to remove the curse he placed on the professor in exchange for his ceasing to investigate the cult’s nefarious activities. When that professor doesn’t make his scheduled appearance at an academic convention, Dr. John Holden (played by Dana Andrews) takes over the investigation of the disappearance.
Dr. Holden, as a man of rigorous scientific methods, has no faith in the supernatural. But his beliefs are tested when he falls under the watchful eye of the charismatic cult leader, who wants something that Holden possesses. Night of the Demon proves its Occult pedigree through its understated handling of the topic, while largely shunning flashy displays of magic. This compelling film was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and is required viewing for Occult horror fans.
9. The Devil Rides Out (1968) – Terence Fisher
Though the great actor Christopher Lee often filled the role of a villain, in The Devil Rides Out he fights the forces of evil with the same relish. Lee plays Duc de Richleau, who learns that a young woman has fallen into the clutches of a Satanic cult; they have plans to initiate her very soon, and Duc de Richleau is determined to stop them.
The Devil Rides Out is full of ritual magic, used both to work evil and to fight evil. Lee’s character knows how to fight on the same level as the Satanic cult, and a battle of spells ensues. This thrilling horror film is a classic of Occult cinema, and remains one of the best of its kind.
8. Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962) – Sidney Hayers
Burn, Witch, Burn! is sometimes known by its alternate title Night of the Eagle, and was released in 1962. With a script co-written by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and George Baxt, it must have felt like a foolproof recipe for success. Thankfully, the film lived up to the potential provided by its legendary writers, and an Occult classic was born.
Peter Wyngarde plays a strong-minded professor who loves to confidently lecture about the follies of superstition and spells. Unfortunately, he soon learns that his own wife is an avid practitioner of ritual magic which has been occurring under his roof.
Even though she claims that her magic has been responsible for his professional success, the professor sticks to his beliefs and destroys all the instruments of his wife’s magical practices. When his fortunes start to change, the scientific professor must face the new facts before him and reconsider his prejudicial notions. Burn, Witch, Burn! delivers on the promises of its tantalizing title.
7. Incubus (1966) – Leslie Stevens
The 1966 film Incubus is one with a strange history and legacy to match its disturbing story. Directed by Leslie Stevens (the creator of The Outer Limits) and starring a young Williams Shatner, Incubus was one of the earliest movies ever filmed in the Esperanto language. Rumors abound of a “curse” over the film and those involved in making it, and the movie itself was thought be lost for many years. Thankfully, it can be seen today in excellent quality.
The story is set in a remote village with a well whose water contains healing properties. When a wounded young soldier arrives in the town seeking help, he soon discovers that the place is also teeming with demons and the forces of evil.
The virtuous young man soon finds himself in a battle over the fate of his soul and his life. Incubus is infused with an otherworldly atmosphere throughout, and moments of pure terror abound. Check out this classic that was fortunately rescued from the dustbin of history.
6. Eye of the Devil (1966) – J. Lee Thompson
J. Lee Thompson’s Eye of the Devil has one of the best casts in Occult horror history. With Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Sharon Tate, David Hemmings, and Donald Pleasence on the screen, the quality of the script almost wouldn’t matter. Thankfully, Eye of the Devil is blessed with an intriguing story in addition to its dynamic performances that holds our interest throughout.
David Niven plays a wealthy landowner who is called to one of the estates where he owns a vineyard which has been failing. He is quite secretive about his trip, and refuses to bring his wife along or discuss his family heritage through which he acquired the estate.
When his wife and children arrive to visit in spite of his wishes, they find an unwelcoming atmosphere and hostile hosts. A witch and her brother who live on the estate seem especially intent on ruining their experience and driving them away. Eye of the Devil is a classic shocker and a quintessential Occult outing.