Monday, October 29, 2012

CinemArchetype 17: The Devil

As the water levels rise and the wind blows the cranes, Pirate Sandy is coming for us like the floods called in by disillusioned church lady Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky. I wanted to quick post this which I've been working on for so very long, just in case it's the last one I get to post, before the power goes out or I'm blown clear to Oz. The atmospheric pressure --"and power is just going out everywhere across the area"-- is melting me in my chair. I got Jesus in my bones and heart and I'm all right, but I need to tell you first about the Devil.

In any discussion of cinematic archetypes, Old Scratch sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb, and that's his whole raison d'etre, an anthropomorphized swelling of sin jammed Jack Horner-deep into the plum pie-heart of man. One can argue theology: is Satan just working for God, challenging mortals like a mean but fair swim coach, or an insecure rich girl worrying the faithful only like her for miracles (PS)? Did God release him into the world like British aristocrats releasing a fox before the hunt? Or--as some CIA agents and conspiracy theorists have claimed--is our world owned by the devil? Is God just a huckster's ruse? Is the light at the end of the tunnel just a lure, so the angler devil can haul us up (down) into suffocating realm above (below)? Any astro- or psycho-naut knows that beyond gravity there is no sense of up or down, or oxygen - so Hell being below and Heaven being above makes no logical sense. But the poor damned souls who have broken the golden rule may wind up/down there anyway --stuck in a lake stocked with sinners for the devil's weekend fishing pleasure.


In the movies and in the literature it all kind of begins and ends with old Faust and his bargain: there's a million variations and we know them all. Robert Johnson met Satan at the crossroads, and his guitar was tuned to the devil's key, but, after his premature death ("I said hello, Satan / I believe it's time to go"), that guitar mojo was loaned out via Aleistar Crowley's trans-dimensional brokerage to Jimi Page. He had to sacrifice his drummer and Robert Plant's son, but Page survived and ended up doing the soundtrack to Death Wish 2. 

I once had a visit from God, I thought, during a profound enhanced meditation, but after awhile He changed. It turned out he was trickster spirit if not a devil outright, just wearing a holy radiance. 

"There ain't no devil / there's just God when he's drunk." - Tom Waits 
He's never far away from a drink either. Every time you curse-- which is constantly-- he collects a bit of your soul. Try saying bless you and may the lord watch over you and praise Jesus a lot instead of goddamn it and  taking the lord's name in vain and you'll see the devil flair up all around in indignant outrage all around in the faces of your friends. "Dude, we thought you were cool?!"Dude, you just cut off the devil's tap!

Little Nicky
Then again,  the horns and hooves are proof Old Scratch is really a representation of old world supernatural pantheism. He's Pan, the god of nature and fornication, the satyr, the initiator into carnal abandon. And now more than ever, we need him.  Not the version hailed in meth-y suburban metalhead attics but the version of natural succumbing to the forces of chthonic nature, Let us sing hymns to Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld. He is not the devil, nor is Pan. But Christians can't tell the difference. That's OK. We still love them despite their inquisitive ways. And if we don't, how are we better than them?

1. Jack Nicholson
Witches of Eastwick (1987) 
"One of those magical practices, divination using the Tarot deck, still contains a paradoxical reminder of an older, more polytheistic vision of Satan, in the form of the eighteenth card of the major arcana of the Tarot, the card called “The Devil.” Juliet Sharman-Burke and Liz Greene, for example, link the tarot card of the Devil with the Greek god Pan. “Because the god was worshipped in caves and grottoes, attended by fear,” they write, “his image within us suggests something that we both fear and are fascinated by – the raw, goatish, uncivilized sexual impulses which we experience as evil because of their compulsive nature” (64).
 This image of Pan as god of dark impulses is one which James Hillman as also written on at length. “Pan is the goat-God and this configuration of animal-nature distinguishes nature by personifying it as something hairy, phallic, roaming and goatish” (“Pan” xx). Ever since the beginning of the Christian era, note Sharman-Burke and Greene, Pan has been subsumed into the image of the Devil, “complete with horns and leering grin.” The notion that Pan died, in keeping with Plutarch’s famous story, is psychologically untrue both they and Hillman contend. “Rather,” Sharman-Burke and Greene observe, “he has been relegated to the nethermost recesses of the unconscious, representing that which we fear, loathe, and despise in ourselves, yet which holds us in bondage through our very fear and disgust.” These two writers further observe that “although he is ugly, he is the Great All—the raw life of the body itself, amoral an crude, but nevertheless a god.” Moreover, they conclude, “the energy which is expended in keeping the Devil in his cave, shameful and hidden, is energy which is lost to the personality, but which can be released with immensely powerful effect if one is willing to look Pan in the face” (64-65).  - Richard Strommer - On Satan, Demons, and Daimons:An Archetypal Exploration
2. Sylvia Pinal - Satana
Simon of the Desert (1965)
"For Simon, this apocalypse of course comes in a very worldly form, specifically in the form of the luscious, womanly Silvia Pinal, a recurring Buñuel player most famous for her lead role in Viridiana. She is a seductive, strangely appealing Devil, appearing beneath Simon's pillar or even on it with him to offer him various temptations — not least of which is her own disrobed body. She appears first as a hip-swaying local woman who catches the eye of one of the priests but not of Simon, who uses her only as an example of the evil lure of women. She appears next as a faux-schoolgirl with sexy garters and stockings beneath her innocent uniform, singing a shrill and sing-songy mockery of Simon's religious devotion while trying to seduce him with her long, serpentine tongue or bare breasts. Most cleverly (and hilariously), she briefly tricks Simon by appearing to him as an embodiment of God himself, a young shepherd in a tunic with an unconvincing blonde beard and curls obscuring her femininity. Pinal is, in fact, not Buñuel's vision of the Devil but the vision of the Devil that Simon himself might concoct: the man who turns his back on the world is of course tempted by a Devil who offers nothing but worldly, fleshy pleasures. Simon, though, is stoic, and Pinal's Satan seduces the audience long before she is able to hold any sway over her faithful target." -- Ed Howard (Only the Cinema)

Ed Howard is always spot-on with his observations, and I'll confess I'm fairly agog over Pinal's "innocent" legs. And I especially like the end, which finds Simon and the devil sitting at a modern swinging dance cafe, both feeling outgunned and irrelevant in the age of Cocoa-Cola and Marx but fitting in perfectly in their new beatnik attire. It's amazing to think of Pinal's level of sacrilegious and profane relish here, when in Viridiana only a few years earlier, she was so pious and naive you couldn't imagine her any other way. Here she's a gleeeful serpent, but in the corrupt future she whisks them to, full of planes and rock-and-roll, prophets and devils may are just two more revelers at a mass masquerade.

3. Jack Woods as Asmodeus
Equinox (1967/70)

This movie used to show up once in awhile on UHF TV when I was a kid and it scared the crap out of us all, like a waking dream/nightmare. In a plot that would be loosely borrowed by Sam Raimi for Evil Dead, (he must have been just as freaked by it) some dopey/square college kids visiting a national park stumble onto a crazy hermit in a dark cave with a secret book full of devilish symbols which could trigger end the world. A friendly park ranger comes along, and would really... really like that book, kids. They don't want to give it to him, so he's less friendly. When he gets one of the girls alone he advances on her, his eye make-up darkens, and he begins sticking his face in the camera and twisting his mouth around in an obscene pucker. He's the stuff of kid nightmares and his name was burned into my memory, Asmodeus. Later, he transforms into a crudely startling claymation devil with wings (below), and summons a big Lovecraftian tentacled beastie, a purple Giant, and other things. Funny I remember the devil as much more elaborate (like the demon in Jeepers Creepers) showing just how much extra detail a child's imagination can add.

Now I'm more intrigued by the memory of being scared by it kid than I am about the movie itself, but Asmodeus is still the guy we imagined trying to lure us into cars with candy, looking all official--those bushy eyebrows, deep voice, that Sterling Hayden x Robert Ryan-style terse, manly delivery. As a representative of paternal security, the figure you run to find when someone needs help in the woods, you want to trust him, and Woods--one of the director/producers--radiates adult knowingness. But then next time you look his eyes are darkening, those brows casting way too much shade over his eyes, and he's leering, his tongue out, and hypnotizing with that flashy ring--leading to all sorts of overlays and flash cuts.

That's the kind of shit that's scary shit for a kid. Even in the broad daylight at home alone on a Saturday afternoon while your dad is golfing and your mom's right outside mowing the grass, catching it on TV could put the chill in a room full of kids. And even watching it now I marvel at the quality of the acting (terrible in all the right ways) and the knowing deftness of the editing. There's not a single dull moment, even if it all occurs in broad daylight, on a clear day outdoors, in a beautiful park picnic atmosphere, and the claymation may be crude, but it's still really good.

4. Green ooze
Prince of Darkness (1987)

This movie got some confused reviews over the years and has a dull ugly aesthetic (a church basement is not the most inspiring place to set a metaphysical movie, though it is the place most of us in AA have our spiritual awakenings), but it grows on you, like moss. Sure it's a bit odd that the devil turns out to be an trans-dimensional glowing green slime that climbs walls and shoots into people's mouths like jets of Scope mouthwash to possess them. Sure it's odd that a very pale Alice Cooper lingers outside with an army of schizophrenic homeless, being lured there by their mental illness(i.e. schizophrenia is really just Satan's alpha wave transmissions which most 'sane' inner radios aren't turned to). Sure, a mysterious figure broadcasts a warning from the future into the dreams of anyone crazy enough to fall asleep, but that's just John Carpenter. So see it again in a year and maybe it will be better, regardless.

Carpenter wrote the script under the pseudonym Richard Quatermass, which is apt since the metaphysical triangulation of demonic myth, physics, and human evolution in the story recalls QUATERMASS AND THE PIT and very few others... so

I dig that truth and belief have nothing to do with each other and yet create each other. I dig that the human ego is extraordinarily narrow-minded when it comes to consensual reality and maybe for good reason. Few of us want to connect the dots that lead us to the unpleasant possible truths such as the possibility that our difference from other life on earth is the result of some long-dead biotechnically advanced alien's dabbling, especially since it's hard to prove it in any 'scientific' manner and it's scary to think about. We scoff (maybe you're scoffing now) but it's partly that we're as afraid of being considered flaky as we are of being proved correct. It's a no-win situation, unless it's told to us as fiction. (more)

5. John Brown as the Black guy with glowing eyes
and Eddie Powell as the Goat of Mendes - Ride with the Devil (1968)
AKA Bride of the Devil

Here in Hammer's tight little adaptation of Dennis Wheatley's novel we have everything that makes British devil films great: Christopher Lee, some intelligent older women, Charles Gray as a sophisticated, witty villain, and a cult of upper crust young jet setters, peppered with a few older eccentrics who look like any minute they're flying to Manhattan for Rosemary's baby shower. There's two devils here, including a smiling black guy with yellow eyes who appears in the center of a big room with a pentagram. With his cocky, frozen grin he's pretty terrifying --his yellow eyes contrasting with his ebony blackness and huge smile paint some image of Voodoo to the jet setter Satan set, as if two branches of the same happy family, like at this moment he's also standing in the center of a Haitian fire circle.

6. Angela Featherstone as Veronica Iscariot in
Dark Angel: The Ascent (1994)

Directed by a woman (Linda Hassani) who is seemingly from another planet, DARK ANGEL (no relation to the TV series starring Jessica Alba) has a bit of a space cadet glow, kind of like MY SO-CALLED LIFE if Angela Chase was a demon looking to find herself in the world above her so-called-hellish home, etc. What's cool is the relative lack of CGI or misogyny as Veronica finds her way through the city, romancing a dumb doctor, wandering around the park ripping spinal columns out of rapists, and feeding the meat of her slain sinners to her dog Hellraiser. Whenever she's about to do a number on someone Veronica's eyes glow green or red. And we learn from the opening act that Hell is owned and operated by God and that the Devil is just a grunt who still bows and scrapes when angels come along to drop off memos. Most of all we learn that if acting is really really bad it becomes almost like innocence.

Sure she's not the devil devil, but Veronica Iscariot is damned close and I love Featherstone's low-key performance and the dreamlike grungy fairytale threadbare quality is endearing in a Guy Maddin-meets-Silk Stalkings kind of way. It's thus the perfect film to pass out to after ten whisky sours. And if you're one of those horror fans who has to really search his collection to find a suitable date movie, here it is. Once you see Veronica offer the rapist's spinal column to his intended victim (for a trophy!) then you know there is a God, after all.

7. Richard Devon as Satan
The Undead (1957)

 I saw this when very young on TV and the scene were Duncan seeks shelter at the witch's house is to me the eternally definitive Halloween moment. Alison Hayes is the va-va-Voom-level hot 'real bad' witch with eyes on Pamela Duncan's dimwitted man, and no one is too amazed by a time-traveling hypnotist, especially not the devil, played with the perfect mix of beatnik sardonicism and mellifluent calm by Richard Devon, who transcends time itself. He shows up only in the last third, when midnight, the hour of the Witches' Sabbath begins, bringing along his autograph book to give out gifts (and pitchfork tattoos like hand stamps at a rock club) and take signatures. Before he shows up the film is just a great weird and well-written mix of basement Shakespeare and black fog graveyard impishness but after he begins his meeting with the dancing graveyard witches it enters a sublime mania all its own. Recognizing the hypnotist with bemused calm, Satan greets him with "so you've managed to slip the bonds of time at last" as if he's been expecting him sooner.

8. Earnest Borgnine
The Devil's Rain (1975)

There was a deluge of devils in the 1970s but I picked Earnest because this is the movie all us kids from the 70s wanted to see: faces melting, horns, and robes, and William Shatner. The other Satan film I most wanted to see as a kid in the 70s was WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY? I even had a wild dream about it, where I was the baby, and then later the mother, and then a girl... weird man, but it left me feeling a bizarre Satanic kinship with this film. I see it now and it's just okay... but whatever. It's iconic. That feeling of these films having some supernatural power is gone, but as a kid growing up in the Satanic 70s just seeing the TV commercial for THE DEVIL'S RAIN was enough to give you sexy nightmares and make the world seem full of strange polymorphously perverse magic.

9. The Nuclear Reactor in the Middle East (and Simon Ward)
Rain of Fire (1977) 
aka  Holocaust 2000, aka The Chosen, aka Hex Massacre 

With an Italian director and Ennio Morricone score, this film would have to pretty bad to go wrong, and it's not bad, so why isn't it better? It's still watchable thanks to Kirk's hammy but committed performance. Notes Samuel Wilson at Mondo 70: 
"I don't think Kirk Douglas would know how to merely go slumming in exploitation cinema. He earned stardom in a series of apoplectic performances (Champion, Detective Story, Ace in the Hole) in which his characters drove themselves into early graves by force of pure will, it seemed, and at moments here he taps into that early fury. He throws himself into the show with Bela-like commitment, putting himself through more than Lugosi ever had to endure in a picture. Two scenes stand out: a feverish dream sequence that requires him to run naked through a desert and martyr himself (sort of) in a crowd of demonstrators; and a furious insane asylum visit that comes off less like Douglas's dream project of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and more like Shock Corridor, albeit with more color and violence."
The highlights are the various hallucinations where Kirk sees an ancient drawing of a devil-ish hydra rising from the Red Sea on a cave wall near where he plans to build a giant nuclear reactor, and it looks way much too much like the proposed nuclear plant for comfort - clearly the prophet from millennia ago foresaw his reactor triggering armageddon. Good luck stopping the project though, when your son's the devil and he's going for the long con.

The idea that a power plant being built has been misread as a hydra by the psychedelic prophet envisioning it in the ancient epochs is pretty brilliant (and ties in with the transmissions in Carpenter's Prince of Darkness). Annoying hippie protestors tie in the anti-nuke environmentalist factor to the other popular subjects of the day, like Satanic offspring (The first Omen had been a hit the year before) and let's face it, no one does devil movies like the Italians! With their centuries of deep Catholic guilt you know what guts and gonzo guts it took to include a scene where a Catholic priest facilitates an involuntary abortion!

10. Joe Turkel as Lloyd the Bartender
The Shining (1981)
Note that the ghost bartender Lloyd appears at Jack's big moment of crisis - when Shelly Duvall accuses him of hurting his son. Here he's wasted five months not having a single drink and it's all for nothing as he's accused of hurting Danny anyway, and he didn't do it, to his knowledge. His language finally breaks up a bit from the mantras and he mutters he'd sell his soul for a drink. Suddenly he lightens up, "Hi Lloyd!" If there's no booze in this dimension, just step into the next one, where momentary salvation and permanent destruction are all tied up in Jack... on the rocks. (more)
11.   Walter Huston as Old Scratch
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

(looking over the contract)
Daniel Webster: This appears - mind you, I say appears - to be properly drawn. But you shan't have this man. A man isn't a piece of property. Mr. Stone is an American citizen... and an American citizen cannot be forced into the service of a foreign prince.
Mr. Scratch: Foreign? Who calls me a foreigner?
Daniel Webster: Well, I never heard of the de... I never heard of you claiming American citizenship.
Mr. Scratch: And who has a better right? When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on the deck. Am I not still spoken of in every church in New England? It's true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I'm neither. Tell the truth, Mr. Webster - though I don't like to boast of it - my name is older in this country than yours.

12. Charles Laughton

This isn't a film (that I know of) but I'm a huge George Bernard Shaw fan, and love this most of all - it was done as a record, I think, with Charles Boyer as Don Juan, Agnes Moorhead as the Old Woman. Here's a sample of the scintillating irreverent dialogue:

THE STATUE: ... In future, excellent Son of the Morning, I am yours. I have left heaven for ever.
THE DEVIL: [again touching the marble hand] Ah, what an honor! what a triumph for our cause! Thank you, thank you. And now, my friend - I may call you so at last - could you not persuade him to take the place you have left vacant above?
THE STATUE: [shaking his head] I cannot conscientiously recommend anybody with whom I am on friendly terms to deliberately make himself dull and uncomfortable. (full show above)

13. Pazuzu

 The hardcore Christian or Catholic idea of the devil is rooted in a purely Freudian subconscious wherein he acts as a catch-all basket of repressed desires and speech, possessing Regan for no other reason apparently than to curse like a rabid sailor, even using 'cunt' as a verb! Regan is also subjected to several cruel medical procedures (including two brutal spinal taps) as science becomes a nouveau inquisition, torturing the 'truth' out of her as if science's own unconscious is itself possessed, until the devil falls in line with the parameters of mental illness as they know it. Just as the toes of schizophrenia were mutilated to fit the shoe of Satanic possession in the Middle Ages, so Satanic possession is mutilated to fit the shoe of schizophrenia today. Like the angels, Pazuzu knows your sins before you do, and calls them and you by name and for that must be destroyed, or assimilated. We never learn where he goes once his new host Father Karras is killed. Perhaps he goes back into the ether, awaiting his sequels. Perhaps he was never there at all. You can't kill a sitcom by smashing the TV.

I would personally like to apologize to all the dark lord incarnations brevity prevents including - Peter Cook in Bedazzled, Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Peter Stormare in Constantine, Gabriel Byrne in End of Days... they are legion, and God bless them.

Lost Highway


  1. This is a great overview of movie devils!

    Very cool.

  2. I know it's a tv show and not a movie, but I always loved the cheezey Devil in that Twilight Zone episode, The Screaming Man (I think). John Carradine was in it? I should really look at the box set before I start these things.

  3. Speaking of "Legion"--Brad Dourif in Exorcist 3, (Legion)is a favorite. Not technically Satan himself, well maybe.


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