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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Satan on the Screen (originally published 10/97)

Speak of the devil, an old adage tells us, and he'll be sure to turn up. Lately, however, filmmakers have been doing more than speaking of the old boy. They've been making movies about him. From the ABC television network's "The Devil's Child," a sort of low-rent remake of "Rosemary's Baby," to the current theatrical release "The Devil's Advocate," Lucifer has been turning up on screens both small and large with unnerving regularity of late.

This fascination with the evil one isn't so hard to understand, really, nor is it by any means a recent phenomenon. Whatever your theological views, you have to admit that Satan makes a great dramatic antagonist. Goethe understood that, as his monumental "Faust" abundantly demonstrates. So did John Milton, whose epic "Paradise Lost" draws much of its fascination from the mesmerizing character of Beelzebub, the dark angel who dared to challenge God's dominion.

With such a rich literary tradition to draw upon, is it any wonder that movies have followed the lead of virtually every other art form by regularly portraying this most spellbinding of characters? For a sampling of Satan's earlier appearances onscreen, look for these titles on video.

"Faust" (1926). German filmmakers of the silent film era excelled at bringing creepy subjects to the screen. An early deal-with-the-devil story called "The Student of Prague" was filmed back in 1913, then remade in 1926. Both versions have been released on video, if you can find them. An even better choice, however, is the German cinema's classic adaptation of Goethe's masterpiece. Directed by F. W. Murnau, who had also directed "Nosferatu," the first screen adaptation of "Dracula," it is a moody triumph of evocative lighting and imaginative visuals. For years this film had been available only in copies of inferior quality, but the recently released version from Kino Video is a marvel and a revelation. At last we can again see Murnau's vision through an unclouded lens.

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" (1941). Down and out New England farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) sells his soul to the Devil (Walter Huston) in exchange for seven years of prosperity. When Mr. Scratch comes to collect, Stone's wife persuades renowned attorney Daniel Webster to plead his case. It's a tough assignment, since the jury is comprised of hell-spawned reprobates hand picked by Mr. Scratch, but Webster is no ordinary lawyer. This entertaining adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's famous story represents Hollywood at its best.

"Angel on my Shoulder" (1941). Paul Muni stars as Eddie Kagle, a murdered gangster who strikes a post mortem deal with the Devil (Claude Rains). Satan will provide Eddie with the opportunity to take revenge on his murderer if he will take possession of the body of a certain do-gooder judge. It seems that this jurist has aroused Satan's wrath by preventing too many souls from entering the nether regions. Eddie's assignment is to undo the judge's good works. The in-joke here is that Rains had recently appeared in a similar fantasy, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941), in the role of an angel.

"Damn Yankees" (1958). Would you believe a singing Satan? A rabid Washington Senators fan makes a deal with the Devil (Ray Walston) to insure that his team will defeat the hated Yankees in this adaptation of the popular musical play. Walston makes a wonderful Lucifer, ably abetted by Gwen Verdon as his femme fatale accomplice, the sinister Lola.

"Bedazzled" (1967). For a lighthearted take on the "Faust" legend, you can't do better than this outrageous romp, written by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Cook plays the Devil, tempting Moore's character by granting his wishes. Naturally, the wishes go awry, giving rise to delightfully absurd consequences. Raquel Welch, then at the height of her fame as a Hollywood sex symbol, pokes a little fun at her own image by appearing in the role of Lust.

Once you start listing devil movies, it's hard to know where to stop. While you're at the video store, might as well stock up on "Doctor Faustus" (1967), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), and a creepy Twilight Zone episode called "The Howling Man" (1960). You weren't doing anything better this weekend anyway, were you? Besides, you know what they say about idle hands.

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