The Devil You Know: An Index of Cinematic Devils

I was once informed that Halloween is the Devil’s birthday, seeing as Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. The town I spent my teens in believed in such things, and although that extreme Christianity has mellowed in recent years, there was a time where even studying other religions was seen as ‘threatening’ and ‘dangerously polytheistic’. I can remember a class in elementary school where a Greek mythology lecture needed a permission slip and had to be prefaced with a note that this was outdated and no longer worshiped.

I grew up on Commercial Drive which went crazy for Halloween, everything would be decked out and people would walk around just to see everyone’s costumes. I brought that enthusiasm to my new home, this small town, and people were rather confused and concerned. Some of my classmates dressed up as cats. I came as Marie Antoinette in a full dress and a prosthetic gash on my neck. Most people were kind enough, and some even joined in with that enthusiasm, but I still dealt with people who weren’t allowed to acknowledge Halloween, let alone go trick-or-treating. That said, seeing as we are now less than a week away from what promises to be the strangest Halloween in recent memory- what with the ongoing plague and just everything in the world- I’ve been thinking about what Halloween means to me, and why I became so defensive about it.

I might have spent time in such a place, but I wasn’t brought up Christian. Much of what I’ve learned about Christianity came from some extreme and occasionally negative snippets. They weren’t all as bizarre and hilarious as the Halloween birthday theory. I once got called a devil worshiper for wearing rubber boots with a skull on them, so these experiences gave me a certain perspective on the Devil. In fact, the only thing I knew about the Devil came from these strange experiences and from films.

There have been some incredible Devils in cinema history. Some are rather stereotypical, the old red suit and horns, but others present alternative readings on Christianity, hell, and theology in general. In fact, much like Dante’s Inferno, these films ask us to consider what it means to sin, what is means to be punished, and what it means to be cast out. I find that the most compelling Devil films are often on either end of the spectrum, as the Devil is either very sympathetic or horrifically brutal and uncaring towards humanity. Both variations are frightful, but for different reasons.

Seeing as there have been so many variations, I thought I would summarize a few of my favourite representations. Now, I should note, I don’t worship the Devil or anything of that kind. I enjoy these representations because they present interesting moral dilemmas and add a certain gravity to a film. They are also defeated or outwitted by the end of the film, much like any other horror villain. However, like many horror villains, they remain a threat even after they are defeated, which puts the audience in an interesting and complicated perspective.

These films are a type of adaptation, just one with a very devoted and important fanbase. But what makes them especially unique is that unlike an adaptation of a classic book, these Devil films perform close readings on the bible and of Christianity by moving these figures into modern predicaments. Devil films always reaffirm Christianity or emphasize some kind of moral system where good triumphs over evil and the virtuous succeed. I don’t mind that these films ultimately return to a Christian model. I appreciate Christianity’s core values and principles, and so I am glad these principles are reaffirmed and good and decency does triumph. Maybe its less fun in some of these films, but I think it is important. There is enough evil in this world, and I don’t welcome any of it into my life or cinema.

That said, here some notable Devil performances in cinema.

The Darkness in Legend (1986)

Although he isn’t technically a Christian Devil, the Darkness is arguably the most famous Devil in film. I’ve spoken about this film in the past, but it is such an incredible project, and one of Tim Curry’s finest roles. It is certainly my favourite makeup in film, as the prosthetics alone are astonishing. He is entirely red, with massive horns which almost triple his height, and of course, he has Tim Curry’s deep and intense voice. He is almost sympathetic in the film, if you can excuse the fact that he is trying to plunge the world into eternal winter and destroy everything and everyone. He falls in love with a fallen Princess, and tries to make her his Queen, in a Persephone sort of fashion. Eventually, he is defeated by a booty short wearing Tom Cruise, but as his final speech suggests, he will always be a threat, lingering on the outskirts of our world. He is darkness, found whenever you turn away, behind every door you close, always threatening to emerge. That is what links every Devil on this list, as they threaten both the character and the audience’s worlds, which makes them absolutely terrifying.

Curry’s performance is so legendary that you’ve probably already encountered the work he influenced. Rumor goes that creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s was so impressed by Legend that he used its themes and basic plot to create the Legend of Zelda. So to summarize, this film has Tim Curry, it has an amazing set, costume, and makeup design, and it is arguably one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, one which has a distinct and visible influence in contemporary media.

Mr Nick in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

I’ve mentioned this film before as well, but Tom Wait’s performance as Mr. Nick warrants another discussion. He is fantastic in this role, particularly as he embodies an almost depression era Devil, who waltzes into precarious situations and relationships and bets on who will win. He and Parnassus have a relationship like God and the Devil, and its notably similar to the one in the Book of Job, where the Devil bets God that he can turn Job against him. What makes this such a compelling character is that he isn’t evil or malicious, just mischievous. He is too smart for the people around him, and when he does lose a bet, its either because he wanted to or because he got caught up in the fun.

Nick has no reason to make bets with Parnassus, he does so because he is bored with immortality but intrigued by Parnassus’ optimism about humanity. I find it interesting that Nick reflects our culture, like any other Devil, but he is not nearly as excessive as the other entries on this list.  He doesn’t really want to win or defeat Parnassus; he is more an agent of chaos and a necessary one. While many Devil films suggest that there must be evil for there to be good, The Imaginarium adjusts this and suggests that chaos and vice are our natural state, and that being virtuous is a conscious decision.

Wait’s performance is additionally fantastic because it is similar enough to his own persona for people to collapse Wait’s identity with Nick’s. Many of Wait’s songs deal with the Devil in a very direct way, like two of my favourite lines “did the Devil make the world while God was sleeping?” in “Little Drop of Poison” and “how do the angels get to sleep when the Devil leaves the porchlight on?” in “Mr. Siegal”. Both lines return to this Christian model with a critical eye, never denying the Devil or God, but asking why they behave in such a way. Wait’s songs never presume to solve anything, they just open the door to questions, which is also Nick’s style. He asks the question, but let’s other people come up with the answer and whatever consequences it leads to. This characterization comes from traditional readings of the Devil, particularly in the Garden of Eden, although its left unclear if the serpent was the Devil, a demon, or just a smart snake. He asks why Eve isn’t allowed to eat the apple. He doesn’t tell her to, he asks why something is the way it is. And by eating the apple, Eve gains knowledge and the ability to critically think, which implies that asking questions leads to further critical thought.

The temptation of Eve reappears in The Imaginarium as a dance between Valentina and Nick. What makes it interesting is that Eve is the one tempting the Devil, and Nick must deal with the consequences. During their dance, Nick tells her to go back to her father, to forget the bet. She ignores and tempts him until he is so caught up in their dance that she can slip away into hell. As she does, Old Nick looks straight at the camera and comments to the audience, “Damn. I won”. He didn’t want to win; he didn’t want the game to end. So, unlike the apocalypse themed Devil’s in this list, Nick is perfectly happy with the way things are, and he doesn’t hate humans. It is all just entertainment for a figure who can never die.

End of Days (1999)

End of Days isn’t a well known or well-liked film, but it has one dynamic performance. In the 90’s never ending attempt to pit Arnold Schwarzenegger against every possible threat, this film pits Schwarzenegger against the Devil and the apocalypse. It has several strange sequences, and my favourite has to be the reason the apocalypse happens. The film takes place in 1999, which is 666 backwards, and as we all know, everything in hell is upside down. I think this reading is fantastic and hilarious, especially as the characters take it seriously. The film feels like a comedy, although that certainly wasn’t intended. However, Gabriel Byrne’s performance is absolutely fantastic and terrifying. He plays the Devil as a calculated and cold being, one who doesn’t actively hate humans, he just doesn’t care about them. He also plays up the seductive aspects of the Devil, seducing multiple women and trying to impregnate another to kickstart the apocalypse. But unlike another entry on this list (the Devil’s Advocate), Byrne’s Devil doesn’t fit in with society. He stands out and often does strange things in public, like grabbing a woman’s breast at dinner and surviving a massive explosion. He doesn’t hide that he is a supernatural entity, and neither do his followers. He commands an army of hypnotized and occultist worshipers who kill and maim for him. But these followers are just human, and they are easily killed by Schwarzenegger. Human error and perseverance help Schwarzenegger save the day, which suggests that human’s true power is our ceaseless and even ignorant drive. Schwarzenegger is just a human, but he is determined to defeat the Devil, regardless of how insane it sounds. The film is quite patriotic in that regard, as one man can make a difference and stop the apocalypse.  That said, the film has its errors, and Burns is its strongest aspect. He is frightening, intriguing, and violent, something which appears in all these entries.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

This might be my favourite on the list, as it is a stellar film with an extraordinary cast and plot. There is one scene where Charlize Theron wanders through her apartment and finds a baby holding onto her uterus. It’s the kind of scene which stays with you, and the film is filled with such moments in its ongoing commentary about capitalism and greed.

It is about a young lawyer who has never lost a case, but who regularly defends people who are clearly guilty. He gets the opportunity to consult with a fancy law firm in New York, run by a strange and eccentric man (who is of course played by Al Pacino). The man takes the young lawyer under his wing and the two become rather close, although the young lawyer is quickly realizing that his defendants have done some truly horrible things. Meanwhile, the lawyer’s wife is growing increasingly paranoid as strange things continue to invade their life and keep them apart. I will try not to spoil the film here, but I will say that the film is true to its title. It stars a man who is constantly playing the Devil’s advocate, and then it literalizes that stance. The film goes on to critique this immoral position and suggests that you must maintain some dignity or moral system, and that not choosing a side is in fact choosing a side. It additionally demonstrates that no sustainable change is possible when money is the loudest voice in the room.

The film focuses on the American capitalist system and compares its wealth with demonic influence. It certainly implies that the wealthy are corrupted beyond measure, and that maintaining that wealth requires a literal deal with the Devil. I believe this film is mandatory viewing as it masterfully reflects 90’s capitalism, while inadvertently examining our current political realm. Al Pacino’s Devil blends in, he is widely celebrated by society and by its wealthiest and most affluential people. This suggests that harbingers of chaos don’t come in red, with horns, or pitchforks, and in fact, they are often the very people put in charge to maintain order.  

Bedazzled (2000)

I would only recommend this film to a few people. It isn’t technically good, but it is a movie, and it does have a Devil in it. In fact, it has the only female Devil on my list, although gender is a construct, especially in these works, as the Devil can appear as whatever they would like.

Brendan Fraser’s character gets 7 wishes from the Devil in exchange for his soul, but like any other genie story, the wishes always come out wrong. I enjoy the film because it plays with our expectations of what the Devil should be like without getting into a massive theological discussion. It also tries to examine our expectations around exploitation, although I am not sure if this attempt is ultimately successful as the film focuses exclusively on the male gaze.

Preacher (2016-2019)

This character was only included in a few episodes, and his death is the reason I’m including him here. He is the stereotypical version of the Devil, all red and with horns. And so, we create a set of expectations about what he wants and what he will do. However, just like the rest of this fantastic and brutal show, we suddenly depart from those expectations. The Devil is shot right through his skull during a confrontation with a battered and vengeful spirit. It is utterly unexpected and goes against everything we thought we knew about the Devil. He isn’t nearly as powerful as we expected, but his death causes a lot more than just theological trouble. It creates a catastrophic void, as someone must manage hell and be God’s counterpart. Defeating evil just makes way for different evil, and so the system continues regardless of how much emphasis our culture puts on the Devil.

The Devil’s Carnival (Volume 1 and 2)

Yet another film I have previously discussed at length. I am a huge fan of The Devil’s Carnival series, particularly as they return to the Old Testament model where God is extremely violent. The Devil isn’t the ‘good guy’ in the film, but he is more honest about his wrath. God in The Devil’s Carnival universe is a dictator who controls the universe with an iron fist and is more than willing to banish, obliterate, or torture his creations if they are imperfect. He is like a doll maker obsessed with minute details and easily frustrated. Each film examines the relationship between heaven and hell and focuses on what it means to be banished versus to be found, and the dangers both options create. Without repeating my other post, I’ll say that the Devil in these films is arguably its most interesting character. He frames morality using Aesop Fables and reshapes people’s lives into these narratives. For instance, he transforms the death of a young girl, killed by her abusive boyfriend, into “The Scorpion and the Frog” fable, where the frog is punished for being too trusting. As such, he close reading people’s lives and reorganizes them into a more simplistic shape, but one which is still more ambiguous than simply good or bad.

The Prophecy (1995)

Prophecy’s Devil has the shortest appearance on this list, but he makes a huge impact. This version emphasizes the biblical origin of the Devil, where he was an angel who was cast down. The film implies that he stayed an angel, and that he blames humanity for his descent. He doesn’t openly hate them, but it takes a lot of convincing for him to help them. I like this reading because it is less extreme than a supreme good over a supreme bad. God and the Devil are on the same side, they just have different perspectives about that side. The Devil is still an angel, and while resentful, he has a job to do on behalf of God; to manage and punish sinners. He isn’t a hero in the film, but he is the lesser of two evils, as Christopher Walken’s Gabriel is the main antagonist. This presents an interesting dilemma, as the protagonists must rely on the Devil to stop an out of control angel. And this is just one time that storyline gets used, as my next entry will detail.

Constantine (2005)

The Devil in Constantine mirrors the one in Prophecy, as although they are played in different ways, they do the exact same thing, albeit for different reasons. The characters refer to the Devil multiple times in Constantine because they are trying to stop his son, the antichrist, from finding a vessel on earth. It is established that no matter what Constantine does, he will eventually end up in hell, and the Devil himself will rise to claim his soul. Constantine realizes that killing himself is the only way he can talk to the Devil about what is happening, and hope that the Devil will do something about it. And so, in the climax of the film, just when all seems lost and Gabriel is helping the Antichrist across, Constantine picks up a shard of glass and slices down his wrists. At first, nothing seems to happen. And then time slows, and a figure walks towards Constantine giggling. While Viggo Morensen played the Devil in The Prophecy with a cold and disgusted sort of air, the Devil in Constantine is the exact opposite. He is dressed in a white suit with glazed eyes and a loud vicious yet cheerful voice. He couldn’t be happier about finally capturing Constantine and all the torture he will get to do. But his scariest moment comes when Constantine tells him that his son is in the other room and is trying to start the apocalypse. The furious Devil storms in and easily defeats Gabriel, thus stopping the apocalypse. Soon after, God strips Gabriel of its wings and makes it mortal, which implies that the Devil was doing God’s work, begrudgingly so. If the apocalypse was to happen, the Devil would be the one to do it, or would at least be consulted. The film thus suggests that everything in heaven, hell, and on earth is about a dysfunctional family who are actively working against one another constantly.  

Lucifer (2016-)

Yet another project which examines the origins of the Devil, however, this time, it focuses exclusively on the Devil rather than examining him from other people’s perspectives. The show is slightly cheesy in moments, but overall, it details a lot of important issues and presents a refreshing take on morality and Christianity without preaching. It also returns to this chaotic family dynamic, and really emphasizes that Lucifer was an angel, and his brothers are still in heaven. What I enjoy about the show is that it talks about these cosmic issues without loosing relevance. It might be talking about the Devil’s relationship with his father, God, but it something which any viewer could also relate to. I think that is what unites each of these Devil representations, as they come from a curious place of fear and sympathy. Anyone can empathize with the Devil’s origin story, or the themes and issues it presents, and so we use the Devil to talk about ourselves. One could argue that this is the same as blaming the Devil for your evil deeds, saying the ‘devil made me do it’. However, these projects, especially Lucifer, resist that reading and suggest that you are responsible for your actions, but that your actions are sometimes reflective of other stories. Like the Aesop Fables in The Devil’s Carnival, our behaviour isn’t anything new or unpredictable, it follows a similar trajectory as other figures, other stories. By studying these characters, and the patron saint of fallen figures, we can learn something about ourselves, our morals, and our choices.

Honourable Mentions

Lucifer in Hazbin Hotel – has not appeared yet but promises to be an interesting inclusion.

The Sheriff in O Brother Where Art Thou ­– technically an adaptation of Hades from Greek mythology, but still referred to as a Devil in the film. Regardless, it is an absolutely terrifying portrayal.