Satan, Lucifer, old Nick, the Lord of Lies, Donald Trump, call him what you will, the devil may be evil incarnate and the pure embodiment of sordid sin, but in purely cinematic terms the faint whiff of sulphur, speaking in tongues, and revolving of the head has always put butts on seats and silver in hands.
There’s a long serpentine line of movies which demonically play on our obsession with mankind’s oldest enemy. And it’s not hard to fathom why. Since the release of The Exorcist in 1973, which scared us in a way we’ve never been scared before, movies which deal with the devil court a fascination within us which is without equal.
In William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, which still tops charts as the scariest movie of all time, audiences were exposed for the first time on the big screen to the complete corruption of childhood innocence, as 12-year-old Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair) soul was possessed by the forces of darkness.The fact you could actually only see these diabolical forces through the yellow-eyed, sallow-skinned, projectile vomiting and obscenity spitting body of a child makes it all the more chilling.
The devil doesn’t actually make a cameo in The Exorcist but his lieutenant Pazazu does. Actual physical portrayals of Satan himself are something of a rarity, but when actors get their devilish depictions right, the results are divine.
So why not put aside your pitchfork, take the weight of your hooves and leave the damned to their own devices, as something wicked this way comes in the shape of Screen Rant’s list of the 10 Best Movie Depictions Of The Devil.
robert de niro – ANGEL HEART (1987)
Any film featuring the twin talents of Robert De Niro and Mickey Rourke on top of their game was always going to be demonic by nature, and Alan Parker’s noir horror mystery Angel Heart doesn’t disappoint. De Niro plays the immaculately suited and booted, cane-carrying, Louis Cyphre. Yet it doesn’t dawn on Harry Angel (Rourke) that his employer is the sworn enemy of mankind until the end of the film, when he finds out that he sold his soul to Satan many moons ago and had conveniently forgotten all about it.
It transpires that Harry was once a famous magician named Johnny Favorite who murdered a soldier, ate his heart and assumed his identity. Being a fiendish lover of diabolical games, Cyphre employs Angel’s services as a private detective to track down the man he once was: Johnny Favorite. Angel’s amnesia eventually clears and it dawns on him he was Favorite all along.
As he realizes his soul is forsaken and Cyphre is actually the devil incarnate, and not just someone whose name is a “dime store joke.” De Niro gives a masterclass in portraying an intense but understated evil as he softly asks with a knowing smile, “If I had cloven hooves and a forked tail, would I have been more convincing?”
De Niro’s depiction of the devil is often overlooked, the role and dialogue he uses to great effect could easily have been hammy in another actor’s hands. This Satan steals the show with the authentic air of an old, ancient, and almost weary evil, which is sick of the sordid sins of man. Be warned. After watching Angel Heart you’ll never view a boiled egg in the same way again.
al pacino – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE (1997)
In contrast to De Niro’s brooding, aloof and suspiciously calm portrayal of Lucifer in Angel Heart, Al Pacino chooses a different method in The Devil’s Advocate, and plays the horned one with all the energy, zest, and gusto of a camp Tasmanian devil with a hardcore methamphetamine habit.
Going by the name of John Milton, the famous poet who wrote the epic Paradise Lost, Pacino’s take on the tormentor of souls is that of a lovable rogue. He’s charismatic, cheeky, a hit with the ladies, but his big downside is that he’s also a lawyer. In fact he’s a head of a New York City law firm who wants to corrupt an eager young attorney called Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves). It transpires that Kevin is actually the dark one’s unwitting son and, let’s be honest, no-one can play unwitting like Keanu. Faced with the dilemma of obeying his father’s wishes, which involve having sex with his half-sister and impregnating her with the Antichrist, or shooting himself in the head, Kevin chooses the latter.
Kevin’s suicide is an act of free will which undermines Milton’s message that it’s “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” Pacino’s devil may be over the top and lacking in substance, but it’s one which poignantly represents the materialism and ambition of the modern age and, as such, he’s suitably shallow.
sam neill – OMEN III: THE FINAL CONFLICT (1981)
The Omen trilogy, which began in 1976, documents the life of the antichrist, from a slyly smiling dark-eyed cherub with a love for Rottweilers and a penchant for making his nannies hang themselves from buildings, to a millionaire businessmen with a passion for killing foxes and drinking whiskey. In Omen III: The Final Conflict, Sam Neill plays Damien Thorn like a devil who has watched far too many James Bond movies. He’s a well-dressed and sophisticated English gentleman who has immaculate manners and is charm personified. In his spare time he also enjoys a spot of rape, infanticide and strangling priests to death.
Thorn is also a head of a sprawling multinational corporation that orders its disciples to kill all boys born in England on the morning of March 24, 1982. Not because he doesn’t like the English, but because that’s the date which heralds the arrival of the Second Coming of Christ. A birth which has long been foretold as throwing a spanner in the devil’s ambitions to create an evil empire without end.
Damien ends the film with a knife in his back, but not before he shows the audience just how full of rage Satan his. The devil in The Final Conflict is the Lucifer Morningstar of the Old Testament, who was thrown out of Heaven because of his pride and jealously. The scene where Damian visits his attic and starts ranting at the statue of Jesus on the cross, is like an angry adolescent having a go at a distant and emotionally remote dad. Damian spouts how he is sick of all the morality baloney, and asks, “Nazarene, charlatan, what can you offer humanity? Since the hour you vomited forth from the gaping wound of a woman, you have done nothing but drown man’s soaring desires in a deluge of sanctimonious morality.” It’s strong stuff, but Christ doesn’t appear to be listening, and not just because a petulant Damian has turned the head on the statue backwards.
tim curry – LEGEND (1985)
Before Tom Hardy made cinematic history by playing both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in the upcoming Legend, Tim Curry was having it large and owning the manor 30 years previous in a film of the same name. Ridley Scott’s Legend may not have featured any psychotic East End villains, but it did boast a colorful selection of unicorns, goblins, and fairies, and featured a young Tom Cruise in the role of a forest dwelling elf who was battling the ancient Lord of Darkness himself.
Legend may not have gone down in history as a cinematic masterpiece, but Curry’s portrayal of the devil is almost as iconic as his role as Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Mainly because Curry’s make-up is fiercely flamboyant and makes him look exactly like the devil from everyone’s childhood. He is an angry red, boasts huge horns, snarls in a sinister baritone, laughs like a creature who murders serial killers, and looks over-the-top even by the standards of medieval painters. Yet if you want a devil to scare a child, then this is it.
Darkness is the devil of fairy tales, the devil of childhood imagination, the devil we’d hide in closets to avoid, and the devil who’s in us all but one we choose to paint in the image of a complete and utter monster.
peter stormare – CONSTANTINE (2005)
Casting the reliably wooden Keanu Reeves as the wise-cracking, world weary, and heroically cynical protagonist in Constantine must have been one of the worst casting decisions in history. Reeves’s hatchet job on the chain-smoking exorcist nearly single-handedly ruined the film, and it was only Peter Stormare’s take on Lucifer which redeemed one of DC Comics darkest cinematic hours.
Peter Stormare’s Lucifer creeps around the place like a particularly repellant and viral disease. He looks like a junkie who has overdosed on depravity and every pore on the deathly pallor of his skin seems to ooze corruption and vice. Stormare’s mannerisms all conspire to capture the essence of a devil who is consumed by the perversions of the flesh as a means of enslaving the purity of the soul.
This is one Lucifer who is rotten to the core, sinister to the bone, and as evil as the day is long. He wears white suits and burns angel’s wings for Christ’s sake! Put it this way, you’d probably want to jump in a bath of bleach after meeting him.
Rosalinda Celentano – THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2005)
Of course the real unsavory and unpalatable villain of Mel Gibson’s ode to sadomasochism that is The Passion Of The Christ, was the torture porn which threw a bleak and bloody shadow over the delicate nuances and emotive performances contained in the rest of the movie. Yet the evil that lives long in the imagination long after the brutal beatings have faded like a discolored bruise, is Rosalinda Celentano’s depiction of Satan.
In songs, the devil has long been a woman, but it’s something of a novelty on the silver screen. Which is a shame because as anyone who has upset a woman knows all too well, hell hath no fury like…. If you’d ever imagined what Satan’s feminine side would look like, it would probably be something like Celentano in The Passion of the Christ.
Dressed all in black like the obsessive fan Johnny Cash didn’t want, and possessing the sort of voice not often seen this side of a nightmare, Gibson’s simplistic but hugely effective Satan has no gimmicks or special powers just a terrible tenacity, alien otherness and overwhelming urge to do the wrong thing.
gabriel byrne – END OF DAYS (1999)
In “Sympathy for The Devil,” The Rolling Stones sung about a “Man of wealth and taste.” Gabriel Byrne in End of Days could be that man, or supernatural entity as the case may be. In 1999 many of us thought the apocalypse was nigh and End of Days cashed in on those fears in a truly appalling manner, by offering the world a film about Arnold Schwarzenegger battling Satan in a bid to save humanity.
The end of the world might indeed be preferable to such a premise, if not for the inclusion of Gabriel Byrne. Cooler than cold fire, Byrne is a a devil for the rich and the cultured. He’s good looking, softly spoke and, most importantly, he’s a Wall Street banker.
Byrne’s portrayal of the devil captures the distant, unflinching, and nameless evil which ravaged the best part of the 20th century. It’s the evil that prospers when good men lose their way and do nothing. Fortunately for God, Schwarzenegger finds his faith, and sends Satan hurtling back to hell in a trash can with the help of a grenade or two.
jack nicholson – THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (1987)
If ever there were ever an actor born to play the devil, it would be Jack Nicholson. He embodies a slightly-unhinged-but-charming quality that, in the blink of an eye, can turn into a frothing-at-the-mouth, howling-at-the-moon, axe-wielding type of full blown insanity. Audiences first realized just how effective Nicholson was at going from 0 to 100 in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Of course, The Witches of Eastwick is a different kettle of fish, but Nicholson still delivers a full throttle performance as Daryl Van Horne. He’s a manipulative womanizer who uses his considerable charm to divide, conquer and control people with all the determination and ability of a born again cult leader.
The three witches Van Horne has recruited to his cause become afraid of the evil which he has unleashed in them and eventually turn on their leader. Like an outraged pimp, the devil is hell-bent on squashing any discord in his stable. Van Horne goes on the war path before deciding discretion is the better part of valor and vanishes into the night, but not before making sure each witch of Eastwick is carrying his child. In Van Horne, Nicholson creates a devil for the modern age. He’s a womanizer, a con man, a manipulator, and last but not least, a deadbeat dad.
walter huston – THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941)
Walter Huston’s earthy portrayal of the Lord of Flies in The Devil and Daniel Webster is so timeless and captivating, Al Pacino used it for research when it came to playing Satan in The Devil’s Advocate.
Mr. Scratch may come across like a simple country boy, but in reality he’s the Satanic prince of the universe. After buying the soul of cash-strapped farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) for a pot of gold, the devil comes to collect his due after Stone has enjoyed seven years of good fortune. Only trouble is that Stone doesn’t want to pay the price of all that good living. Mr. Scratch offers him an extension in return for the soul of his son, but Stone is horrified at the thought and asks his good friend Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to help him.
Webster defends Stone’s breach of contract in front of a jury handpicked by Mr. Scratch (and consisting of some of the most notoriously evil men in American history). Webster eloquently defends the integrity of the soul and the importance of second chances. Fortunately for Stone, the jury agrees that one should be allowed to raise their fists against the fates and the foreman tears up Mr Scratch’s contract. The devil, as they say, is always in the detail and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Juliette Carton – THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
Satan is featured in many guises in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ but it’s as a caring little girl angel the Lord of Lies is at his most effective. On Christ’s (William Dafoe) first trip into the desert to discover God’s will, the devil ambushes Jesus from all angles. As John the Baptist warns him beforehand, “God isn’t alone out there.” And so it proves as the son of God encounters a snake, a lion, a pillar of fire and an apple tree who are different faces of the one they call Lucifer.
When Satan whispers “Why are you trying to save the world? Aren’t your own sins enough? What arrogance to think you can save the world!” It’s a genuinely unsettling moment. As Christ struggles with is ancient enemy, he comes through like a true champ only to end up crucified on the cross for his struggles, but apparently that wasn’t part of the long-term plan after all. A young girl angel (Juliette Carton) appears to tell Christ that God loves him and wants him to be happy. She helps him down from the cross and he meets up with Mary Magdalene and makes love. He then goes to to live a comfortable life in a cabin with a couple of wives.
Towards the end of his life, Jesus is told by Judas (Harvey Keitel) he has been a traitor and that the little girl angel was actually Satan, who tricked him into an ordinary domestic life and he has not fulfilled his destiny of sacrificing himself and bringing salvation to all. Jesus cries out “Let me be your son” and he’s instantly back on the cross and realizing his alternate reality had been a trick of the devil he cries out, “It is accomplished! It is accomplished!” and dies. Proof, if any were needed, that Satan is at his most dangerous when he approaches in the guise of the innocent, and that choosing personal comfort over doing the right thing is a big temptation to watch out for.
As long as hell doesn’t freeze over, our fascination with films whose subject matter is the devil and all his terrible and unholy works will probably outlive Armageddon, because they strike a chord with us and deliver the same message, which, in bygone days, was the prerogative of John Milton’s Paradise Lost or Dante’s Inferno. And the message is that all of us, from the most sincere saint to the most depraved sinner, are all at perpetual risk from the corrupting influence of evil and the devil inside. Now pass the popcorn.