[25 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
From Faust to Futurama, silent films to CG spectacles, Satan has been a solid component of popular entertainment for eons. Want a simply symbol of evil? Call on Old Scratch. Hope to show how a life spent in selfish hedonism will lead to an eternity in Hell? Bring on Beelzebub. As much as the ethereal concept of God “seeing” and surrounding us has been left wholly to an audience’s imagination, the pervasive notion of iniquity has mandated a true flesh and blood manifestation. Apparently, good is easier to handle as a unseen ethos than bad. As the latest uneven incarnation of damnation hits theaters (The Last Exorcism on 27 August), SE&L looks at 20 Famous/Infamous illustrations of the Devil. While visually diverse and uniquely different, one thing about visualizing vice remains the same - the dread is only as palpable as the person (or persona) playing the part.
Lucifer in The Prophecy
Before he went on to rule Middle Earth as the Once and Future King, Viggo Mortensen played the Fallen One in Greg Widen’s intriguing indie horror film. Centering on angels coming to Earth to battle for a soul destined to change the entire Heaven/Hell dynamic, his Dark One is icy, calculated, and very, very creepy.
Darkness in Legend
Perhaps the best classical depiction of “The Devil” in any post-modern film, thanks in part to the stellar acting of Tim Curry and the mind-blowing make-up work by Rob Bottin. From the enormous horns to the cloven feet, everything about this demon indicated a fiery force to be reckoned with.
Mr. Scratch in All That Money Can Buy
Many know this film by its more common name - The Devil and Daniel Webster - and few have forgotten Walter Huston’s turn as the bouncy blood oath bargainer. With its satiric social commentary leanings and its old school Hollywood charm, this is one Satan whose as sympathetic as he is sly.
The Swirling Ooze in Prince of Darkness
In John Carpenter’s physics-oriented look at the rise of the Antichrist, Satan in seen in one of two horrifically suggestive forms. The first is as a massive swirling canister of green ectoplasm in the deserted basement of an old church. The second is as the terrifying muscled hand of “something” wanting to cross over into our world. Both are chilling.
“Captain Howdy” in The Exorcist
Though only suggested by a statue, the true manifestation of this malevolent entity ends up written all over poor Regan McNeil’s pre-teen body. As the ultimate violation of innocence, as the gold standard for cinematic battles between good and evil, William Friedkin’s masterpiece of terror continues to be the best movie about demonic possession ever.
Louis Cypher in Angel Heart
And thus begins Robert DeNiro’s slow career slide from formidable acting force to paycheck cashing charlatan. He is not bad as a suave, ponytailed personification of the Devil, but there are aspects to his underplayed performance that fail to come across as “Satanic”. Instead, he’s more like an angry talent agent.
The ‘Dream’ Devil in Rosemary’s Baby
As part of her husband’s deal with Dominion, our heroine has a very realistic nightmare of being raped by Lucifer himself - only the vision actually happened! Nine months later, she is shocked to learn that her womb was indeed the storage unit for Satan’s own offspring. Lousy pentagram-worshipping neighbors.
The Devil in Bedazzled
You’ve got two choices here - hilarious British comedian Peter Cook (working with Beyond the Fringe partner Dudley Moore), or his far more fetching remake recreation, Elizabeth Hurley. Both play Beelzebub for laughs, though the former finds far more funny business in his ‘60s depiction than the former Ms. Hugh Grant ever does in the dreary update.
Mr. Boogalow in The Apple
If disco was indeed the Devil’s music, then this fey representation of evil from producer turned auteur Menahem Golan is its silly Saturday Night Fever Dream. In a constant battle between kitsch and crap, this music mogul as retro freak-out mangoat is enough to make your go God and never look back.
Pitch in Santa Claus
Okay, so he’s only one of Satan’s many minions, but in this ridiculously dopey holiday film, our bright red rube is a fairly effective perverted of personal morals. He even manages to convince three bratlings to kidnap Santa himself. Not bad for one of the Shadow Lord’s misguided underlings.
The Man/Satan in End of Days
Gabriel Byrne should have nailed this. After all, he carries himself as someone who looks like they’ve seen the backend of Hell now and then. Sadly, he is saddled playing villain to a spiral Arnold Schwarzenegger, reduced now to battling supernatural baddies to prove his former action hero mantle.
Little Damien in The Omen
Think children are all goodness and light, snips and snails and puppy dog tails. Once you see little Harvey Stephens play the Antichrist, you’ll reconsider all your pro-progeny leanings. So sinister that a mere smile chills your bones, his cherubic facade hides so many horrors that you too will want a set of ritualistic knives just to be on the safe side.
The Devil in Shortcut to Happiness
Jennifer Love Hewitt? Jennifer Friggin’ Love Hewitt? What on EARTH was actor/director Alec Baldwin thinking when he decided to remake The Devil and Daniel Webster and put Ms. Ghost Whisperer in charge of making the main character’s dreams of fame and fortune come true. It’s hard to decipher which is more frightening - her performance or the casting decision.
The Devil in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
He’s buff. He’s powerful. And he’s gay. That’s right, only Trey Parker and Matt Stone explore the alternative lifestyle situation of spending eternity in the Underworld by making their animated personification of malevolence a hopelessly homosexual romantic. Of course, Saddam Hussein is the object of his obsessive affection, so it seems to make sense.
Satan in Constantine
Though he shows up late in the narrative, Swedish actor Peter Stormare’s turn as Lucifer really illuminates the religious underpinnings of this chaotic comic book effort. As a bitter, angry entity with nothing but business on his mind, the actor is so terrifying that he makes the previous mediocre thriller seem meaningful.
John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate
Talk about chewing the scenery. Godfather cohort Al Pacino joins the fake Jake LaMotta in the privileged club of master actors massacring their career by playing malevolent for money. As the high profile lawyer luring a dim bulb Keanu Reeves down the boiling brimstone path, Big Al is over the top and campy as…Hell?
Barney Satin in The Devil and Max Devlin
Like casting Jennifer Love Hewitt as the embodiment of evil, making Bill Cosby take up the pitchfork and prance around with ‘70s holdover Elliot Gould must have been someone’s idea of a sick joke. Leave it to the House of Mouse to Disney up demonology in such a silly, surreal way.
Harry O. Tophet in Oh God, You Devil
As part of the pointless attempt to keep vaudeville comedian George Burns a viable big screen star, yet another sequel to his feel good turn as Lord and Creator was commissioned, with the aging icon doing double duty as both wise and wicked. What we learn is that Satan is just as decrepit as his Heavenly counterpart.
Daryl Van Horne in The Witches of Eastwick
What is it with former A-list actors throwing away their reputations by playing middle aged versions of The Dark Lord? At least in this case, Jack Nicholson seems to be having a whole lot of fun. As the sexed-up savior to three hard-up matrons, this lothario version of vileness wants to do more to these gals than “save” their souls.
Satan in The Passion of the Christ
Mel Gibson’s movie version of the Savior’s last hours is a lot of things - violent, racially insensitive, pointed pro-Catholic propaganda, atmospheric, and difficult to fully embrace. Still, one has to applaud his decision to depict the Devil as an androgynous enigma meant to confuse Christ as much as tempt him. The results are intriguing indeed.