It’s hard to nail down the personification of the ultimate evil. The Prince of Darkness deserves to be more than just a cackling, dark figure in the background or an over-the-top sleaze. This is an angel who has been cast out of Heaven and carries a major grudge. Neglecting the depth of his pain or not seizing the opportunity to have a little fun in the exercise of his machinations is always a problem, with no discernible representation able to strike a perfect balance yet. The best contemporary performances on film leave something to the imagination and twist our perception of the iconic role just enough to make it seem fresh or threatening. What follows is a list of cinematic Satans that have made an indelible impression, ranked from worst to best.
Gabriel Byrne in End of Days (1999)
Byrne is a talented actor who is masterful in such movies as Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects and Jindabyne. His proficiency in other films is what makes the ineptness of End of Days so miserably frustrating. Casting him as the Devil is intriguing in concept and painful in execution. In this action/horror movie Arnold Schwarzenegger falls into the role of protector, trying to keep a young woman (played by The Craft‘s Robin Tunney) from being impregnated by the Devil before midnight on December 28th, 1999- which would bring about the end of the world. Schwarzeneggar tries to solve everything with a machine gun instead of his wits. Everything that is meant to be soulful in terms of Tunney’s fate, falls flat. Bryne is charged with being a badass, able to seduce a woman with one lustful kiss and exiting a building that inexplicably explodes. It’s true that Byrne’s body is merely a vessel for the Devil, but the snark behind the facade only carries scenes so far before they border on boredom or cringe-worthy interactions. Although Byrne has the dark looks and a killer sinister sneer, the level of cheese at hand is almost unbearable and not in an enjoyable way. He feels like less of an actor than a visual marker for a half-cocked, rock star idea of evil than an entity on a serious mission. Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night, On the Waterfront) plays a good priest that seems to be in an entirely different movie altogether– so sincere and solemn that it puts the rest of the film to shame. An animation of the Devil’s true form is almost worth the running time but Byrne’s incarnation leaves much to be desired.
Robert De Niro in Angel Heart (1987)
De Niro’s acting in Angel Heart is subtle to say the least. Instead of going the overtly eccentric route that so many others have taken, De Niro’s Satan barely registers any reaction. His stoicism is effective when methodically rolling a deviled egg and creepily picking off the eggshell with his curled yellowing nails but his general appearance in the film feels artificial and tacked on. During the title credits the phrase “special appearance by Robert De Niro” appears and seems to proclaim that we shouldn’t get our hopes up that De Niro is heavily involved. Knowing that De Niro’s Lous Cyphre plays a small but vital role to the story is meant to excite but instead it ends up quashing some of the suspense surrounding the missing person case that he charges private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) with. The real terror of the film is unravels from what the missing person has done to himself by way of repressing of his greedy past. De Niro’s highly groomed appearance and grand plan evoke a mobster looking to collect a debt is sophisticated but his role is so understated that anyone looking for the legend to turn in something along the lines of Taxi Driver is going to be sorely disappointed. Angel Heart‘s revelations are truly revolting but the shock has everything to do with what humanity does to itself. De Niro’s Devil waits patiently and calmly for his due, absent from the action as the burden of his work is taken on by age-old ignorance and base motives.
Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The Witches of Eastwick is comedy/horror movie less about the battle between good and evil than it is about the battle of the sexes. Nicholson’s Devil is Jack Van Horne, a mischievous, sex-ed up stranger conjured by three single women (played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon) in search of the perfect man. Naturally, they get more than what they bargain for and are temporarily turned against one another by his ruinous ways. There’s no mistaking that this Devil plays and talks dirty. What’s interesting in the series of reversals and power plays that go on is that the Devil ends up needy and wants a caretaker of sorts. Of course, he still doesn’t understand that he just can’t do whatever he wants while and expect everyone else in the world to be servile and submissive. The Devil being an incredibly self-involved misogynist seems like a role tailor made for the brand of narcissism that Nicholson has so often effectively brought to the screen in films such as Five Easy Pieces, Terms of Endearment and The Departed. Jack brings a ton of energy and sardonic fire to the role. It’s a commendable spin on the Devil’s normal interactions of women. Instead of the Devil’s usual sexual exploitation of unwilling women who are faint of heart- here women initiate the interaction and although they are tricked- they learn from their mistakes and become more powerful from the experience.
Peter Stomare in Constantine (2005)
Stomare (Fargo, Dancer in the Dark) appears suddenly in a sharp white suit with tar dripping from his hovering bare feet. This striking image arrives from above and pulls up a chair to talk with Constantine (Keanu Reeves) who has called on him to collect his soul. Along with Tilda Swinton’s fantastically androgynous depiction of the angel Gabriel, Stomare’s presence works perfectly in tandem with the special effects of this climatic scene. With a biting sense of humor that stirringly provokes as much as his costume announces he isn’t the Devil you’re accustomed to facing, Stomare’s unconventional look helps create an eerie atmosphere that is sealed with a husky and sickly voice that proclaims his nearly all encompassing power over the situation. This could have been just another cameo by the Devil, but Stomare’s force is so impressionable that it stands out and above actors with far more name recognition.
Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy (1995)
Years before achieving stardom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen turned in a surprisingly edgy performance as Lucifer in Gregory Widen’s The Prophecy. Mortensen impresses with only a few minutes of screen time opposite Christopher Walken’s acerbic Gabriel- a rogue angel who is looking to end a war in Heaven, no matter how much human carnage he might incur. Unusually, Lucifer gets to play savior while still holding onto his reputation as a legitimate threat to the protagonist. His whispers, little howls and off-beat line readings feel partly improvised which make for a memorable and humorous portrayal. Hunching over like a gargoyle when talking, his physicality distracts from the cliche slicked back hair and dark clothes. It’s hard not to enjoy a Satan who munches on an angel heart and slides the register of his voice to meet the manic tone of his bestial appetite.
Max von Sydow in Needful Things (1993)
Based on a Stephen King novel, Needful Things introduces us to an elderly businessman who sets up his shop of antiques and curious wares in a little town called Castle Rock. Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow) is a silver tongued salesman who offers those that come across his path just what they most desire- be it youth, money, possessions or health. Unaware how their selfishness affects others, the townspeople of Castle Rock quickly make the ultimate trade for a few moments of triumph. Satan doesn’t care what damage he inflicts, just how many souls he is able to rack up in the mayhem. Castle Rock is merely a pit stop on his never-ending journey to corrupt all of humankind. His chaotic evil fractures the town and tears down all guises of civility. Ultimately, he only has to wind people up and leave it to the individual what price they are willing to pay for a slice for flesh-bound happiness. The sheriff (Ed Harris) is also a recent transplant who has retreated to this small town in hopes of getting away from the cynicism and violence of big city life. The plain spoken Harris is a good match for the thick accented and calculating von Sydow. Never for a moment does one entertain that this Devil has anything in his heart but destruction. He laughs at all pain and takes great pleasure in watching lives fall to pieces. One interesting aspect of Gaunt is that he can see a person’s past sins and unfulfilled wishes. Max von Sydow’s Gaunt elicits delight with his smooth-talk and fine sense of eternity. His knowing grip on the history of human depravity is what makes his power to push people to the edge realistic and a demented joy to watch.