The supernatural being who tempts man’s soul to sin and ruin from his fiery underworld throne goes by many names (and if Jagger and Richards are to be believed, he wants us to guess them, too). He’s a creature — mythical or otherwise, depending upon where you fall ideologically — of many different faces, as well.
He’s a fallen archangel. A tempting serpent. A winged beast. A libidinous, cloven-hoofed behemoth. A sinister mist. An androgynous tormentor. A seductive woman. A slick businessman. A comic in ill-fitting red costume, complete with limp tail, cheap horns and plastic pitchfork.
Depictions of Satan throughout the ages are derived from a variety of religious and secular sources, stretching from literature to fine art: the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Codex Gigas and the Malleus Maleficarum; the writings of Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, William Blake, Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey; the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, Fra Angelico and Gustave Dore; and beyond.
However, the most striking and, arguably, lasting sculptor of Satan’s image — for contemporary audiences, at least — is cinema. From Georges Melies’ darkly comic, foppish display in the classic silent film The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906) up through Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl’s portrayal of the Devil as a bright red, horned Heavy Metal dark lord in the musical Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006), Satan has been presented in all shapes, sizes and forms in the movies.
This variety of characterization stretches back to the Enlightenment. As science and rational thought explained the wonders of the world, Satan’s role as instigator of natural calamities diminished. He was less feared and, in turn, more open to public interpretation. The great Satan was no longer a threat to some, but he remained a force of evil to many others. This duality persists into the present.
The shift might account for the reduction of sinister physical manifestations of Satan in cinema.
Comedic representations abound — Ray Walston in Damn, Yankees (1958), Peter Cook in Bedazzled (1967), George Burns in Oh, God! You Devil! (1984), the sensitive animated Satan in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) and Harvey Keitel in Little Nicky (2000) rank amongst the best — but the truly frightening are sorely lacking. Rather, it is Satan’s invisible hand and his minions that dole out the true terror on screen.
The Exorcist (1973), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007-11), and the REC films from Spain (2007-2009) find Satan possessing the living without showing his true form. And his followers get in on the wickedness in a slew of films, some gems — The Seventh Victim (1943), Curse of the Demon (1957), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Race With the Devil (1975), The Omen (1976), House of the Devil (2009) — and some perfectly ridiculous, such as the low-budget William Shatner vehicle The Devil’s Rain (1975), served complete with a cameo by Church of Satan founder, Anton LaVey, who also served as technical adviser (an odd role considering the Church of Satan’s rejection of the theological Satan).
The many faces and facets of Satan are worth exploring, especially during the Halloween season. As horror movie marathons are planned in the coming days, throw the ol’ Devil into the mix. As the first monster to scare the bejesus out of mankind, he will sit nicely amongst your favorite spooks this year.
Satanic cinema essentials not to miss include:
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922): Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s silent epic is ostensibly a documentary tracing the history of witchcraft, but its representations of Hell and re-creations of black masses and other medieval superstitions — including Christensen as a tongue-wagging, horned Satan — are downright spooky.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941): Walter Huston brings a wily and mischievous edge to the Satan persona in William Dieterle’s classic. As Mr. Scratch, he offers seven years of prosperity to a poor 19th-century New Hampshire farmer in exchange for his soul, only to find himself defending his actions in court (albeit in front of a hand-picked jury of the most evil men of American history).
Legend (1985): Tim Curry is the Satan in Ridley Scott’s unjustly overlooked fantasy — a hulking, muscular creature with red skin, massive black horns and a booming voice whose lust for a beautiful maiden rivals his taste for blood.
Crossroads (1986): Yes, Ralph Macchio hardly fits the role of a young Blues guitar prodigy, but his descent into Hell where he goes head-to-head against Steve Vai in a riff-off for his soul while the Devil (played by the awesome Robert Judd) watches is ace.
Witches of Eastwick (1987), Angel Heart (1987), The Devil’s Advocate (1997): Three of cinema’s biggest stars, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, step into the Devil’s shoes in three very different films. Their approaches vary, but they share a requisite intensity and repulsion.
The Passion of the Christ (2004): Mel Gibson’s controversial depiction of the last days of Jesus Christ is as terrifying as any horror film in terms of the violence and gore that is throws at viewers. The Passion’s Satan is a study in restraint, though. A bald, pale, androgynous clothed in hooded robe, this Satan is quiet and serpent-like with piercing steel eyes. It slinks in the background and in shadows, observing the souls it seeks to influence and possess. ©