The pantheon of movie and TV exorcists is a vaunted group that includes regular people, religious zealots, disgraced clergy, and, of course, a man who reports to Catholicism’s highest earthly power himself. But while the congregation of cinematic demon-banishers is impressive, their actual rankings are more straightforward than you might think. In honor of The Pope’s Exorcist arriving on Netflix, we’ve put together a ranking of the best and worst exorcists pop culture has to offer.
Some of these exorcists have impressive power and effectiveness, while others fail their missions entirely. So, more than any other ranking, this one needs its criteria to be as tightly ordered and clearly spoken as the Prayer to Saint Michael in the presence of one of Satan’s generals.
First and foremost, we’re judging these exorcists (both professional and amateur) on their track records as stated by the films they’re in. Next, we’re judging them on their training. Unfortunately for the amateurs, if you need an exorcist, you want one that’s well studied. Another important criteria is real-world accuracy. More specifically: If they’re based on a real person, was that person full of shit? We accept no charlatans when an exorcism is needed.
So, without further ado, if you ever found your physical form in the clutches of a demon, be it Asmodeus, Pazuzu, or any of hell’s other hosts, here’s who you would want saving your soul.
Movie exorcists, ranked
1. Gabriele Amorth — The Pope’s Exorcist, The Devil and Father Amorth
The star of The Pope’s Exorcist is among the most storied and successful exorcists in modern history. He also has the distinct honor of being the subject of one of late great director William Friedkin’s last movies, a documentary called The Devil and Father Amorth, which covered his exorcism of a woman named Christina. According to his own accounts, Amorth performed over 130,000 exorcisms — a number that includes any individual prayer or act conducted in pursuit of an exorcism, rather than just the number of demons exorcized.
Above all, Amorth earns this spot for a number of reasons aside from just his real-life accomplishments. The version of him in The Pope’s Exorcist might be cinema’s most competent and intelligent demonologist ever. He uncovers a plot by demons to take over the world and dedicates the rest of his life to stopping it, and he’s so good that it’s easy to see how he could succeed against the legions of hell. It also helps that Russell Crowe plays the character with a wink and a smile that can transform from silly to power-of-God in an instant. —Austen Goslin
2. Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) — The Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Father Merrin is really the star of the Exorcist film series, and he’s been waging a successful war against the devil and Pazuzu for decades. He unlocked a child’s superpowers to defeat the demon once; he saw the ways that evil British colonials could be influenced by demons and fought them too; and, of course, he met his end trying his damndest to save Regan MacNeil. Consider this spot a well-earned lifetime achievement award. —AG
3. Father Tomas Ortega and Father Marcus Keane (Alfonso Herrera and Ben Daniels) — The Exorcist (TV series)
What a goddamn (ha) pair of exorcists we have here. The ultimate good cop/bad cop team of priests, Father Tomas is the kind parishioner with a dark past that drove him to walk the straight and narrow, while Father Marcus is the clergy’s bad boy, a rough-hewn British man who looks just as likely to beat your ass with the Bible as he is to read from it. Set in the same world as the original film, the Exorcist series rocks not just because of its slow-burn expansion of that film’s world, but because it’s about two men wrestling together against the demonic and their own humanity. —Joshua Rivera
4. Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) — The Exorcist, The Exorcist III
Damien Karras is the people’s exorcist. He isn’t a great priest, he isn’t a great exorcist, and he doesn’t know as much as you’d hope. But what he lacks in all those categories, he makes up for in heart and grit. He saves Regan by pitching himself and his Pazuzu-possessed body out a window. Then he does it again when Pazuzu returns in The Exorcist III. It’s a tremendously impressive track record, but it also reflects a high degree of self-determination while possessed, and that’s something this list values very highly. —AG
5. John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) — Constantine
Before you get mad at me for choosing the film version of DC Comics’ best-known occultist over the fan-favorite TV version portrayed by Matt Ryan, understand that the movie version of Constantine gets a spot on this list because it is a departure from the comics. Ryan’s version, true to his Vertigo roots, is more of a magician. In translating the character to film, Keanu Reeves and director Francis Lawrence lean on something more familiar: exorcism movies.
It helps that Reeves is great as John Constantine. Like Damien Karras, he’s a journeyman exorcist, capable but not elegant, able to solve demon-related problems but in a way that will probably get messy. That’s because Constantine, and Reeves’ weary, haunted performance, keeps the most important thing about John Constantine intact: how hard it is to do the job as a damned man, without heaven at his back. —JR
6. Father Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) — The Rite
The Rite is a movie full of exorcists, from the cowardly and later possessed (Father Lucas Trevant, played by Anthony Hopkins) to the supposedly great but factually absent (Father Xavier, played by Ciarán Hinds). But the real winner here is Father Michael Kovak, who starts the movie being sent to exorcism school in order to kick-start his waning faith. It doesn’t really work, until he’s forced to step up when the previously mentioned priests (his former teachers) can’t. That kind of clutch factor is exactly what you’re looking for in an exorcist; on the other hand, things had to get pretty dire before Kovak managed to step up, so he doesn’t get full marks. —AG
7. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) — The Conjuring films
What makes The Conjuring a good movie is that its heroes are shitty exorcists. Ed and Lorraine Warren are more amateur demonologists than they are priests, but by virtue of their work, they’ve gotta be ready to perform the necessary Catholic rituals should they run into an infernal presence. This makes them interesting in the occult movie canon: too experienced to be cynical, too educated to be true believers.
Faith, however, is what makes an exorcism work, and the Conjuring movies are at their most effective when the Warrens (Ed more than Lorraine, granted) have to reach within themselves and find it. It’s a great character arc for the movies, and given their collection of haunted curios, they’ve ostensibly met with plenty of success. Too bad we’ve only seen them on their worst days on the job. —JR
8. Annie Graham (Toni Collette) — Hereditary
In some cases, the fact that Annie doesn’t even really try to exorcize the demon Paimon from her son would be cause to keep her from this list, since that would make her not really an exorcist. Instead, her inaction is proof of her damnation. She let a group of weird old people turn her son into a vessel for the King of Hell all because she didn’t love him that much, and frankly that’s embarrassing behavior both for a mother and for someone in an exorcism movie. —AG
9. Father Paul Morning (Nicol Williamson) — The Exorcist III
It isn’t Paul Morning’s fault that he’s here, it’s the studio’s. See, The Exorcist III was an adaptation by William Peter Blatty (original author of The Exorcist) of his own novel, Legion. The problem was that the novel didn’t have an exorcism in it, so the studio made him add one. The end result is a perfectly serviceable scene with Father Paul Morning, where he confronts a possessed man (we won’t spoil who here) and tries to exorcize him, only to get screamed at, taunted, attacked, and knocked out. And that’s about his entire contribution to the otherwise excellent movie. On the one hand, we can assume that he at least knows something about exorcisms, but boy, the one example of his talents we have isn’t great. With all that in mind, watching a pro get embarrassed like this is even worse than with an amateur, so he’s bringing up the last spot on the list.