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Get Thee Behind Me, Satan
by Simon Smithson

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The levitation bet won, Linda Blair claimed her five bucks.

The levitation bet won, Linda Blair claimed her five bucks.
They say that the Devil's greatest trick was convincing mankind that he doesn't exist.

I personally feel that the Devil's greatest trick was reality TV, but I'm willing to let the original quote stand. It's a lot catchier.

The Devil is pretty much THE bad guy. The villain to end all villains, and 100% guaranteed to be a force for evil in any situation that he appears in. It's the ultimate in typecasting, but if you've got the Devil as your antagonist, well, you don't really need to go into his motivation, or his characterisation, or any attempt to go beyond two dimensions. He's the Devil, ergo, he's the bad guy. It's all you need to know. The same applies logic to Hell's goon squad- working for the Devil puts you squarely in the black hat league (right next to Bill O'Reilly).

But how that kind of powerful, endless evil (the Devil, not Bill O'Reilly) is actually applied - now that's the beauty of it. Your basic diabolical portrayal can be done in many ways- it can at times be incredibly funny as it plays on cultural recognition. It can be a source of barely suppressed, primal fear. And it can be done with a malevolent fury that can be truly terrifying.

The all-time champion of the field is THE EXORCIST. Not the sequels, not the remake, but the original fright-fest that left audiences sleepless and determined to never again eat pea soup. THE EXORCIST was a prime example of what happens when all the elements of a movie come together in harmony. A strong script, excellent performances, and subject matter that speaks to subconscious fears all contributed to the overall effect of the film. Linda Blair's performance in particular was nothing short of extraordinary. Increasingly confined to a bed, arching her back, and screaming obscenities, she played off actors and actresses far beyond her in both years and experience and she more than held her own.

The true horror of THE EXORCIST lies in the shattering of security, in the way that barriers previously thought to be impenetrable are swept aside in a matter of moments. With no respect for innocence or the sanctity of the home, an overwhelming force of malignity takes control of a child and proceeds to wreak havoc, finally stopped only by sacrifice upon sacrifice. It's a primordial human terror- that evil will strike at the heart of everything we hold dear and we will find ourselves powerless to defend against it.

Questions of power abound in the Denzel Washington supernatural thriller FALLEN. One can only imagine how that treatment was pitched to the studio executives- ‘Guys, it's Denzel Washington and John Goodman up against a Hebrew demon that comes out of Elias
The Devil always breaks his Eastern Promises.

The Devil always breaks his Eastern Promises.
Koteas. Huh? Huh?'

FALLEN has all the usual hallmarks of a supernatural thriller- unexplainable events, an initial willingness to believe, an educated guide to show the way. It stands out as a movie because of the strength of the supporting cast (Donald Sutherland, Embeth Davidtz, James Gandolfini) and because of the unique device used for the villain, the disembodied spirit Azazel, who takes possession of men and women and moves from victim to victim at a touch. At first the demon is simply fixated on Washington's character, Detective John Hobbes, but as the movie progresses the scope and scale of what is truly happening becomes clear.

With not one but a host of actors playing the role of Azazel there is no anchor to base the character on. But the script keeps a sense of cruel humour flowing through every portrayal, an intelligence and a contempt that perfectly captures the idea of a murderous fallen angel forced to live among animals that it despises and dreams of destroying.

Lighter relief came when Kevin Smith took Catholicism to town with his fourth Askewniverse picture, DOGMA. Apparently Jason Lee was originally intended to play the part that ended up going to Matt Damon, but couldn't commit due to scheduling conflicts. The casting department's loss was the viewer's gain, because, unable to play the fallen but fairly harmless angel Loki, Lee instead ended up playing the fallen and definitely harmful angel Azrael. Lee's particular brand of self-satisfied charm was in full swing from the moment he appeared on the front porch of a housewife whose household air conditioning was to be her downfall. Lee played Azrael as a wisecracking mastermind who could turn smarmy friendliness into sinister deadliness at the drop of a hat. Smith amplified Lee's darker moments with a cacophony of shrieks that cut through the soundtrack whenever Azrael made an appearance.

With DOGMA, Smith took elements of Catholicism and played with them in his own idiosyncratic style, and demonology was no exception. Azrael fell not as a result of rebellion against heaven, but as a result of refusing to fight. And he spends the movie happily strutting around in a white suit, alternately cracking jokes and killing people.

Given the magnitude of the character of the Devil himself, it's not surprising that he's cropped up more than once as the villain in various action movies. The Schwarzenegger vehicle END OF DAYS, the Christopher Walken movie THE PROPHECY, and the Keanu Reeves MATRIX follow-up CONSTANTINE all featured Lucifer at one point or another. Unfortunately in a couple of cases, even the addition of the Prince of Darkness himself couldn't
No one was suprised when the Devil turned out to be Irish.

No one was suprised when the Devil turned out to be Irish.
rescue the film.

The saving grace of END OF DAYS was the casting of Gabriel Byrne as Satan. Schwarzenegger was his usual action-hero self, Kevin Pollack was the stereotypical wise-cracking sidekick, and Robin Tunney stayed in THE CRAFT mode as the helpless Christine. Byrne, on the other hand, strolled through the movie exuding Black Irish style, playing the classical Devil for all he was worth. He stole men's wives, he bought men's souls, and he was followed by explosions wherever he went. Given Byrne's stage presence and brooding charisma it's only surprising that he wasn't called in to play Beelzebub in any earlier movies.

By contrast, Viggo Mortensen brought a restrained savagery to his portrayal in the horror movie THE PROPHECY (Elias Koteas's first brush with Biblical evil) as he flew in the face of all conventional knowledge and played a villain in the same movie that Christopher Walken was already playing a villain in. Mortensen played the Devil to Walken's Gabriel, the leader of a new rebellion in heaven. He was more of a presence in the second half of the movie, moving to head off Walken's attempt to break a celestial stalemate. Mortensen being Mortensen, he still managed to shine and hint at the real darkness that lay just below his character's surface.

CONSTANTINE saw Keanu Reeves face off against the diabolical in a markedly different way than he did in THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. The movie has its flaws, but one thing that it got right was the casting of Peter Stormare as Lucifer. Stormare makes little more than a cameo appearance, coming in at the end of the movie as something of a deus ex machina. He then acts Keanu Reeves right off the screen, chewing on the scenery and submerging any trace of his own humanity. It's a pity that Stormare doesn't get more high-profile work, instead mainly being relegated to supporting roles that call for believably bizarre characters. CONSTANTINE also featured ex-Bush front man Gavin Rossdale as the scheming demon Balthazar; being killed by Keanu Reeves must have been a refreshing break from continually being outshone by Gwen Stefani.

There's a fine line between fascination and farce when it comes to using the supernatural as fodder for movies- the audience is already being asked to suspend their disbelief, and a poor performance can completely destroy the temporary illusion of a world populated by angels and demons. Bringing the Devil into play requires a performance that goes the whole hog, something that reminds the viewer that somewhere out there in the dark of night, someone's got their eye on you.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Soldier On

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

You Can't Spell Private Without I

All Columns

Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.

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