How Do You Talk to El Diablo?
What do Left Behind, Little Nicky, Mister Frost, and Hellboy all have in common? They all feature the devil in either a starring or cameo role. Satan or Lucifer has long been a fascinating figure ever since John Milton’s Paradise Lost immortalized him. Not surprising in a bit of homage Al Pacino as Satan in The Devil’s Advocate call himself “John Milton.” But treatments of the devil have varied greatly. In The Devil Rides Out (1968), Christopher Lee faces off against a Satan cult but Satan himself only appears for a few brief moments.
Tim Curry’s devil in Legend, on the other hand, takes center stage in perhaps the wildest interpretation yet with his devil sporting huge cloven hooves and horns. But in the 1990s, the devil became more and more cynical and laid back. Gabriel Byrne in the End of Days plays him as a normal man without any of the usual markers associated with the devil. Pacino’s John Milton is mostly seen in a business suits as is Keanu Reeves. Viggo Mortensen’s Lucifer in The Prophecy is somewhere in between the yuppie version of Satan and the more traditional, mythic image of past times with a devilish goatee and hairstyle. The devil of the 1990s often comes of not just sympathetic but, comparatively, if not good a tolerable evil to the alternatives available. He or she is just a fallen angel and not exactly malevolent.
Interestingly, though, the anti-Christ is consistently portrayed as irredeemable. Sometimes the anti-Christ and the devil are either confused or simply turned into one being. The surprisingly solid Left Behind trilogy has a Romanian politician Nicholae Carpathia (Gordon Currie) as the devil. He’s called the anti-Christ but has seemingly endless powers (the novel portrays him in more human terms). The Omen’s Damien is the son of Satan not Satan himself and only displays his power subtly. (If you call being able to spit back enormous amounts of facts at a moment’s notice a “power.”)
Traditionally, the hero either confronts the devil or is seduced by the power of evil. Not surprisingly many, even secular, films use the Nazis and Gestapo as either allegorical devils or actually in league with Satan. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy goes in step further featuring a hero who like the devil, horns and all. Technically, he’s the Beast of the Apocalypse and fated to destroy the earth. But Hellboy resists and even saves mankind again and again. But the possibility that he indeed is the devil is left open.
Indeed figuring out if Satan is actually present is part of the fun of these occult thrillers.
In Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, Boris Balkan’s attempt to get The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows written by Torchia in 1666 has Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), a book detective, run all over the world to find the book that supposedly allows one to conjure up the devil. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen the movie but it’s unclear if Corso even meets the devil yet clues suggest he did. The Ninth Gate is interesting in that there is no real hero in the story.
Though the-deal-with-the-devil plot is perhaps the usual story is sometimes perverted as it is in the Ninth Gate. In Spawn, Malebolgia tries to force Al Simmons, a former government assassin, to lead his army. But Spawn, at least, has an anti-hero in its titular character. Many people, both critics and fans, argue seriously Marsellus Wallace either is the devil or sold himself to the devil (explaining the mysterious briefcase his henchmen are guarding). This might be plausible given Tarantino’s Catholicism that is present in his films but not as overt as, say, Martin Scorsese.
Similarly, one academic seriously contends The Usual Suspects that, yes, Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey) is, in fact, Satan. To be sure, tells us “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” but this seems something a character in a film noir would say. Keyser Söze seems to fit the bill though. Yet it’s never clarified if Verbal or Söze even existed and much of what we’re looking at is an illusion. Perhaps that, too, is part of the Devil’s trickery.