[23 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
During a pivotal point in the introduction to the upcoming found footage fright film The Last Exorcism, con man evangelist Cotton Marcus makes a startling summation: “If you believe in God,” he chides, “then you have to believe in Satan.” Logically he’s 100% right. Without evil, there is no good, without damnation, there is no salvation. It’s the foundation of organized religion, with or without the fundamentalist freak-outs. It should be no surprise then that both the Devil and his Heavenly betters fair equally poorly in the eyes of Hollywood. While no mainstream movie has taken Christian theology seriously, either as mythos or moviemaking conceit, the same can also be said for the Fallen One’s unholy hellspawn.
Indeed, the Dark One is almost exclusively reserved for the horror genre, a realm unrealistic in its dogmatic dealings. True, there are those times when the underworld is referenced in a less slice and dice manner, but for the most part, people associate the cloven hoof with the creepshow, and dare go no further. It’s interesting - Cecil B. DeMille can go overboard bringing questionably cast Biblical epics to life, but rarely, if ever, is the Devil part of his doings. Even Mr. Malfeasant Malapropism himself, Mel Gibson, barely give Moloch his/her due with his/her depiction in The Passion of the Christ. No, God gets all the glory while his supposedly as powerful lower half languishes in torment, taking in all the souls unsaved or unsanctified.
For the most part, it’s been left to indies and the exploitation experts to render Beelzebub relevant. Kenneth Anger used lots of demonic imagery in his masterful short films, while Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain deconstructed the battle between good and evil to its haunted, very human roots. During the “do anything” era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Mondo movies tried to uncover the truth about Satanism, while era-specific faces like Anton Lavey used their pseudo-celebrity to push the practice in such drive-in exposes as Witchcraft ‘70 and Satanis: The Devil’s Mass. Even today, the Mark of the Beast is usually mixed up with such struggling restrictions as heavy metal, Goth, and that reverse bit of proto-feminism, the Wiccan.
The real reason why the Devil never gets his due is obvious - Jesus, while favored, barely warrants star treatment. Oh sure, he’s been labeled a superstar and been given a dozen deadening origin efforts, but for the most part, the story of Christ and his Christian doctrine is disposed of in favor of miracles, “Amazing Grace”, and those always stoic Stations of the Cross. Wrath rarely enters into it, nor has anyone bothered to make the movie where true God hopping leads to the end of the world. The Gospels are ripe with pre-approved apocalyptic visions, and yet except for Michael Tolkin’s take on The Rapture, few outside of 3ABN have dared to broach such an End.
So if Jehovah can only get name checked in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, how is The Lord of the Flies going to get his own showcase? Because of backlash, because few in the mainstream would want to see a film focusing on how Satan became the theological opposite of what faith fosters, Lucifer loses out. Instead, the mangoat is relegated to member of the macabre, given over to easy deception and defeat via the arcane symbols of a Western ideology. By the way, no one is suggesting a sudden switch in religious allegiance. Who you worship in the privacy of your own social PR campaign is completely up to you, the media, the masses, and a few thousand years of “don’t be bad” brainwashing.
Yet, in going back over the last few decades of moviemaking, Hell seems more celebrated as a location than a concept. In Little Nicky, it’s a headbanger’s daydream. In Constantine, it’s a nuclear blast washed arid LA. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut rendered it a place where every self-righteous celebrity (and a few famous sacred cows) hang out together, while metaphoric fire and brimstone accents the depiction in other sources. It’s odd that the Born-Again wouldn’t use the highly potent propaganda of said sour place for their evangelistic recruitment.
Bill Wiese even gave them a primer for such a spiritual sell-through: his terrifying TV-ministry tome 23 Minutes in Hell. Unlike others who’s afterlife experience has centered around bright lights and seeing their dear departed dead past, the aforementioned witness walked though a cesspool of rotten smells, horrifying demons, and naturally, the Hand of God offering him sanctuary.
It’s all about source. The various scribblers of the sacred texts built in enough spectacle and awe to stir the imaginations of those wavering between belief and blasphemy. Want to celebrate God’s glory? It’s all there in Biblical black and white. Similarly, want to sell Satan as the biggest bad-ass this side of Studio City? Go to the text and terrify the masses. In the current box office battle standings, JC and his dad win the day. The Devil only earns acknowledgement as a source of scares, or a cautionary example of how far man can fall. One of the reasons that zombie mythology continues to flourish is that audiences apparently enjoy the notion of the living fighting the dead for dominion over Earth. Now imagine the stakes being a lot more cosmic, and you’ve got some idea of how epic it all could be.
Perhaps it’s due to the ancient nature of the evil, the horns and pointy tales taking something away from the supposedly sinister. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination, since many in the field of entertainment aren’t interested in conjuring up the visions already written and rendered. There have been depictions of the Devil, comic and concrete, fanciful and fierce, but the underlying elements of true good and evil are relegated to afterthoughts in the discussion’s footnotes. Boiled down to its basics, we have punishment and reward for your level of conviction. Give God his due and you’ll wind up in paradise. Fail in one of his many contradictory and confusing teachings, however, and Satan has a special place for you in a lake of fire.
In essence, filmmakers are missing a golden opportunity to use The Bible and its extensive extrapolations as a means of creating truly meaningful messages. They don’t have to be hokey or half-baked. They can draw on the dozens of theatrical underpinnings that make religion so exaggerated and overly dramatic. CG is amped up these days, meaning an all out war between the bastions of Heaven and Hell could be like The Lord of the Rings, minus the multisided dice dimension. All it takes is someone brave enough to give both sides of the situation the respect their eon’s long lifespan deserves.
Like the character Cotton Marcus says, you have to verify Satan in order to truly sanctify God. Treating him as a plotpoint after thought is not enough. Sadly, both sides of the pious coin have been underserved by the piecemeal productions of Tinseltown. Until that changes, neither God nor the Devil will be granted their full due.