The Devil is a popular character in cinema, but he’s much happier when someone else enjoys the limelight for his evil deeds.
“The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” says Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint, the outwardly meek, socially awkward gopher in Bryan Singer’s classic thriller The Usual Suspects. It’s a memorable line that sums up what’s so ingenious about the film’s labyrinthine plot, and why Satan (manifested in criminal mastermind Keyser Soze) is such a compelling character for storytellers.
As Kint implies and the movie demonstrates, true evil is exceptionally good at shaping complex narratives which cover its own tracks. Behind all of humanity’s diabolical acts, the theory goes, is a malevolent creative genius, coolly orchestrating all the action like the world’s most heinous movie-maker, and an artist savvy enough to let someone else take credit for the chaos.
Conjuring a smokescreen
The devil as director is a theme playfully explored in Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, a 1922 silent Danish horror movie masquerading as sober documentary. With no characters to identify with, and not much in the way of meaningful academic analysis, Haxan deploys the mock-framework of rational inquiry as an excuse to enjoy lurid historical events and weird, fantastical vignettes with the detached thrill of a voyeur.
A gripping, darkly comic tale about the nature of possession, Rosemary’s Baby shows how people unwittingly become docile vessels for nurturing evil.
Masterminding the spectacle is director Benjamin Christensen, who appears himself as Satan, a sexual predator who ogles women through their bedroom windows and makes off with them during the night, a rather sexist metaphor for female flightiness. Women are passive creatures easily possessed, and their predilection to temptation and hysteria is the reason why so many throughout history have been tried and executed as witches.
Female neurosis is the smokescreen concocted by the satanists in Rosemary’s Baby too, Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece about a young woman’s home, marriage and body being invaded by the Prince of Darkness. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, a young New York couple under the control of some exceptionally nosy neighbours, who ingratiate themselves with busybody kindness, isolate the lonely Rosemary from her support network and then serve as masters of ceremony during her middle-of-the-night rape by the Devil.
A gripping, darkly comic tale about the nature of possession, Rosemary’s Baby shows how people unwittingly become docile vessels for nurturing evil. Paranoia and conspiracy hang heavy in the apartment block, as Polanski masterfully combines the mundane, the macabre and the natural anxiety of pregnancy. Chief culprit isn’t the Satanists though, or their sinister, patronising advice that all will be well if Rosemary just takes some pills and rests, but the wimpy and easily-seduced Guy, whose narcissistic ambition to make it big as an actor is the Faustian bargain which invites Lucifer into his wife’s bosom.
Gruesome murders, steamy sex, saxophone solos and animal sacrifice all ensue, as Angel chases his own shadow from Harlem to New Orleans
Another entertainer with dreams of showbiz is crooner Jonny Favourite, the missing person at the centre of Alan Parker’s 1987 neo-noir horror film Angel Heart. On his trail is the mysterious, impeccably manicured Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro), who hires clammy private investigator Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) to track Favourite down. Gruesome murders, steamy sex, saxophone solos and animal sacrifice all ensue, as Angel chases his own shadow from Harlem to New Orleans, oblivious to his participation in a vengeful, satanic killing spree.
A moody, Chandleresque take on the Faustian legend, Angel Heart is let down by a plodding narrative, but is still worth seeing for DeNiro’s brilliant cameo. Quietly terrifying and with an air of chilling stillness, Louis Cyphre (get it?) is gravitas incarnate. It may be a two-dimensional role, but it’s one of DeNiro’s nastiest turns – and a reminder of what a sensational screen presence he was before he sacrificed his reputation for dialled-in roles and fat paychecks, a somewhat ironic postscript to a movie all about selling your soul.
There’s no greater example of this than actor Hendrik Hoefgen, the central protagonist in 1981 German-Hungarian film Mephisto, a riveting look at how performance, power and politics can be an intoxicating combination. Set in 1930s Germany during the rise of the Nazis, István Szabó’s movie sees Hendrik (played by Klaus Maria Brandauer) earn a gilded reputation by playing Satan on stage, then feebly compromise his artistic and political values in return for wealth, social status and the chance to remain centre stage, even if it’s under the grim, controlling searchlight of the Third Reich.
Satan really does exist, flourishing if there’s a cause deluded enough to hide behind
Full-blooded, intensely physical and simultaneously pathetic and tragic, Brandauer delivers one of the most astonishing screen performances by any actor: a masterclass in how to portray manic, tortured energy forever on the cusp of insanity. Satan himself may only appear as a fictionalised character with a red and black costume and a painted white face, but his presence throughout the film is palpable: in the fascists’ moronic, jack-booted urge to dominate, and to a greater degree in the way Hoefgen shamefully justifies his own cowardly actions.
As Verbal Kint suggests, Satan really does exist, flourishing if there’s a cause deluded enough to hide behind – and if ordinary people allow themselves to be possessed by their inner demons of ego, insecurity and self-deception. ‘The devil is everywhere and takes all shapes’ says the narration at one point in Haxan, and as Mephisto shows, he’s much closer to home than you realise.
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages Trailer, 1922
‘Can we come in?’ Excerpt from Rosemary’s Baby, 1968
‘Would you like an egg?‘ Excerpt from Angel Heart, 1987