Sunday, August 29, 2010
Top Ten Movie Devils
Those of you who are familiar with my writing (and my art, for that matter) will know that devils figure pretty prominently therein.Given my reactionary Catholic upbringing, this is only to be expected...but I've also made a serious effort to cultivate this unhealthy prediliction with a serious study of matters demonological, and I've always tried to plug as much of my scholarship as possible into my endeavors.Considering myself a good judge of demonic depictions, I thought I'd damn well better do a list of movie devils, considering them to be distinct from merely mortal cinematic bad guys, who, as you know, I've already bloviated about. Anyway, here goes.
1. Rex Ingram as The Genie from Thief of Baghdad, 1940. Forget Barbara Eden or Robin Williams(actually, now that I think about it, don't forget Barbara Eden); the cruel fact of the matter is that most genies, or Djinn, are very frightening commodities, and are rightly classified as devils. That is, of course, the reason why King Solomon imprisoned a bunch of them in bottles or lamps or whatnot. Iblis, the Muslim Satan, is a Djinn who opposed the creation of human beings, refused to bend the knee to Adam, harbors a profound malice towards humans and has a number of horrible co-religionists. He is, in fact, kinda similar to Tchernobog in my Zorachus books...but enough about my stuff.
There isn't too much Muslim demonology in Alexander Korda's 1940 megabuck Thief of Baghdad, which is kind of a pity, but Rex Ingram makes up for all that with a very powerful characterization; he's got a great deep voice, a striking exotic face surmounted by a truly infernal topknot, and a physical presence so imposing you almost forget that he's wearing titanic didies...the movie had a huge budget, and Rex is backed up by a bunch of the very best special effects you could buy back then, all served up in wonderful technicolor. When Sabu, the titular thief, lets this guy out of his bottle and then tries to try to weasel those wishes out of him, you truly question his judgement...I would've just laid down and died.
Rex, by the way, plays Satan himself in another fantasy, Cabin in the Sky, and very satisfactorily too...but the genie makes a bigger impression, and that's why he's on this list.
2. Tchernobog, Fantasia, 1940
Hey, was 1940 a good year for Devils, or what?
Fantasia is rather a mixed bag, but I've never met anyone who wasn't wowed by the demonic doings at the end...Courtesy of the great Disney animator Vladimir "Bill" Tytla, we get Tchernobog, the Black God,(whose name I proudly cribbed for my own satan figure in the Z-books) presiding over a dynamite Witches Sabbath, set to Night on Bald Mountain by Moussorgky. Tytla was known for powerful, threatening draftsmanship (he also did Stromboli in Pinocchio), and he showed impeccable judgement in using Bela Lugosi as his model for the evil deity...the music, the art, and Lugosi's performance all come together in some of the niftiest diabolic visuals imaginable. When dawn comes, you're actually rather sorry...the Ave Maria thing which follows is sheer silly anti-climax...I like the triumph of Good over Evil as much as anyone, but faced with a choice between little wimpy hooded candle-holding guys, and a giant winged devil orbitted by furies, I'm afraid I'd rather go with the big bad...
3. Walter Huston, Mr. Scratch, All the Money Can Buy, 1941
RKO was a great little studio with a wonderful batting average, and they were particularly good with fantasy and horror stuff. King Kong was RKO, and Hunchback of Notre Dame, and all those Val Lewton movies, and in 1941 they came out with my vote for the single best fantasy ever made, All That Money Can Buy, also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster...it was based on the story of that name by Stephen Vincent Benet (who also helped out on the screenplay). It was beautifully directed by William Dieterle, who also helmed Hunchback and Portrait of Jennie, and it had great black and white photograpy by Joseph August, and a knockout Bernard Hermann score, for which he got his one (and only!) Oscar.
But the thing that totally makes the movie is Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch. Walter was John Huston's father, and he turned in a number of cool performances, such as his leathery old miner-guy in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but Scratch was the pinnacle of the guy's career, for my money. The movie is a very American take on the sell-your-soul story, and Scratch is a truly American Devil, folksy, down-home, and meaner than a field full of New Hampshire rocks. He's got a pointy beard he could put your eye out with, an amazing squint, great fast delivery, and he sees right the hell through you...he also has the luscious Simon Simone working for him, and you really don't have a chance unless Daniel Webster is pleading your case, as dopey farmer Jabez Stone finds out when he makes a get-rich-quick deal with this horrible supernatural Yankee sharp-trader. The film abounds in amazing stuff, such as the extremely creepy ghost-ball, and the scene where a jury of all-American evildoers rises from Hell to pass judgement on poor Jabez. The final bit, where Scratch notices you out there in the audience, is pretty fabulous too. As far as I'm concerned, Huston's characterization is a prime candidate for best movie devil ever...his only real competition is Al Pacino's John Milton, but more about that later.
Get the Criterion version of this flick, by the way. The theatrical and TV version was badly butchered...I think they cut about fifteen minutes out it, and there was absolutely no reason to...even at the longer length, it's pretty tight, and it's better with the extra stuff.
4. Peter Cook as George Spiggot, Bedazzled, 1967
Aside from being extremely funny, Bedazzled is surely the most philosophically literate movie ever made. It's no wonder that Harold Ramis, himself no slouch with philosophical comedy (he did Groundhog Day), decided to take a whack at a remake---and really failed. The folks who put the original together were a very rare breed, terribly knowledgeable and extremely witty. The stars, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, were just coming off Beyond the Fringe; they were showing up in all sorts of stuff, but they weren't always in charge of the writing; in Bedazzled they were, and they're at the the top of their considerable and highly literate form. The flick was directed by Stanley Donen, who made the best musical ever, Singing in the Rain; how exactly he got this particular gig, I don't know, but he sure made a first-rate comedy here, and really let the ideas speak for themselves.
The plot is another deal with the devil thing; Dudley Moore plays Stanley Moon, a little London wimp who works at...well, Wimpy Burgers. His life sucks, and he's in love with one of the waitresses, Margaret Spenser, who he doesn't have the nerve to talk to. When he tries to commit suicide, he's approached by Peter Cook's George Spiggot, a towering mod apparition in a redlined cape and granny glasses, who tells Stanley that suicide is "the last thing you should do." He also declares that he's the Devil, and offers Stanley seven wishes in exchange for his soul...Stanley buys in and off they go, into one alternate Stanley Moon-life after another, with George granting each wish in a way that keeps Stanley from getting what he wants. George is pure bait-and-switch...you sell your soul and you don't even get Simone Simon in the meantime. He's completely shameless and stoops to everything, tearing out the final pages of mystery novels and personally putting great big scratches on LP's. After Stanley pursues Margaret through six disastrous scenarios, Stanley really applies himself, and comes up with what seems to him a foolproof formula---true spiritual love, with no other men involved. George responds by turning him and Margaret into lesbian nuns of the Order of St. Beryl...with Margaret unwilling to act on her impulses!
The film's consistently hilarious throughout, with a lot of comic riffs on Free Will, morality, and nature of God and Satan...when Stanley asks what God is like, George replies " He's adorable...He's just the most adorable thing." Some Kantian ethics creep in right at the end, but just a bit, not enough to sour the overall presentation...George tries to get back into heaven by doing a good deed (freeing Stanley from his contract), but St. Peter doesn't buy it, because George was acting from selfish motives. With God's laughter roaring down from above, Spiggot promises to make the world worse than ever, covering it with Wimpy Burgers and Tastee Freez...but Stanley gets the nerve to ask Margaret out.
All this and Raquel Welch as Lust, too! In a bikini!
5. David Warner as Evil, The Time Bandits, 1981
I must confess, this flick was rather an influence on me...it came out when I was working on the first Samurai Cat book, and there have been a number of SC scenes that have had a Time Banditish tone...the Cat stories, of course, feature a lot of bouncing around between historical periods and alternate worlds, and there's a bunch of that in TB...I'd already established that format for the stories, but I took a close look at what Terry Gilliam was doing.Der Kampfburg was directly inspired by the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, and it would be fair to say that my latest book, Yark, has a pretty Gilliamesque feel, part Time Bandits, part Brazil. Quite apart from the stuff I semi-cribbed, I was really impressed by the low-tech approach that Gilliam took on TB; the film had great FX, primarily achieved with simple camera tricks and practical work.
And then you have the occupant of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, David Warner's Evil. He's physically trapped in his huge crumbling stronghold, but he can extend his influence through many dimensions ("Stand by for Mind control!") and is responsible (like George Spiggott) for the shoddy mechanistic shittiness of modern life. Surrounded by plastic wrap and lots of ducts, he promotes evil and stupidity while fulminating about God's creation: "Thirty-seven species of parrot, nipples for men!" When the Time Bandits steal a map from the Supreme Being that shows where all the holes in time and space are, Evil decides he could use it to escape from his fortress,and lures the bandits, via the aforementioned mind control ("I've got an idea, forming in my head," says Og, the dimmest bandit), to his realm, whereupon he steals the map and hangs the dwarves in cages over a yawning void. They escape, however, (this sequence being one of my favorite things ever) get the map back, and use it to summon good guys from all over history to fight Evil, only to watch in horror as he wipes each and every hero out, some of them in pretty damn gruesome fashion. Of all the devils on this list, Evil is the biggest badass, and I like that. Ultimately, he's only defeated by direct divine intervention. God carbonizes him, then manifests Himself in the form of Sir Ralph Richardson, who looks at what's left of his terrible creation and rubs his hands and says with evident artistic pride, saying, "I think he turned out pretty well," and we find ourselves agreeing...
The script was by Gilliam and his Monty Python bud Michael Palin, and they did a ripping job, by the way.
6.Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983.
To give you an idea of how much I like this characterization, you should know that Something Wicked was produced by Tom Wilhite, the guy who bought the movie rights to Adventures of Samurai Cat. I had been counting on Samurai Cat to provide for me and my family...Mr. Wilhite opted for a horrendous adaptation full of fart jokes, musical numbers a la Michael Jackson, and a kidnapped Japanese Emperor who was protrayed as a fat Buddha guy with his ass hanging out...this in a movie that Wilhite expected Japanese folks to finance. Needless to say, he destroyed the property and is still tying up the rights...when I told my confessor that I'd like to punch Wilhite's lights out, the priest paused, then replied..."Sometimes it's possible to be justifiably angry."
Anyway, I'm still putting Mr. Dark on this list.
Of course, I prefer to think of him as expertly rendered Ray Bradbury. Bradbury adapted his own novel, but he wasn't happy with the finished product; in truth, the rest of the movie is nowhere near as good as Jonathan Pryce, whose performance really fires on all cylinders, and is extremely true to Bradbury's original conception. Pryce. who plays the proprietor of a circus-of-the-damned which comes to your town to scare kiddies and snatch souls in general, would deserve to be on this list if only for the page-tearing scene with Jason Robards, who plays one kid's cardiac-case dad...tempting Robards with promises of renewed health and vigor, Dark rips one page after another out of a book, each representing a year of restored vim...Wilhite and crew added some cartoonish flaming special effects to each rip, but there was never anything wrong with the scene to begin with. Pryce carries it off with the sheer force of his portrayal,which is the very epimome of breathy gloating satanic glee...Pryce's facial expressions are astounding in this scene, and Robards' old tired cardio-agonies complement them nicely.
I can speak to the matter of the flaming pages with some authority, by the way...when Wilhite was still talking to me, he sent me a tape with two versions of the film on it--- director Jack Clayton's original, which was all script, performance, and atmosphere, and the enhanced FX version, which was quite a bad idea, (except for the replacement score by James Horner). Man, I should've broken off the negotiations for Samurai Cat then and there.
Interesting post-script (at least I think it's interesting). When I was out at the Worldcon in Anaheim in 1984, me and the wife went to Disneyland, and they were having Donald's Birthday Parade, which was a procession of all the Disney characters, well, facsimilies thereof...you had Mickey and Minnie and Donald and Pluto and Dumbo and Pinocchio and Mary Poppins and right there at the end...
7. Gozer, Ghostbusters. 1984
I'm a big fan of Dan Ackroyd's work, particularly his writing...you get the impression that you could have a wonderful ranging conversation with him about just about anything. Take all the illegal alien biz in Coneheads, for example...that movie came out quite some time ago, but it seems more relevant than ever. I'm also one of the world's few admirers of Nothing But Trouble, which leaves us with the impression that, other things, Ackroyd knows what Sao Paulo smells like...the movie's skin-crawlingly disturbing, it's absolutely inconceivable to me how it could ever gotten greenlit, and my hat is utterly off to Mr.A.
But we need to get on to Mr. A and demonology.
Most of our western traditions about demonology actually originated in ancient Mesopotamia...as far as we can tell, the Jews weren't particularly interested in devils until the Babylonian Captivity...once they got back, you had a whole lot of references, particularly in the New Testament. William Peter Blatty played on this in The Exorcist; the Devil that possesses Regan, as a matter of fact, is an actual Babylonian demon named Pazuzu; the best stuff in the film, in my opinion, is the sequence with Father Merrin in Iraq. I've buttressed my own devils, both in The Dead, and the Zorachus books, with cribbings from Mesopotamian sources. Well, Mr. Ackroyd, highly informed person that he is, knows all about these matters, and Ghostbusters made that abundantly clear. (My assumption, by the way, is that he was responsible for the basic ideas, with Harold Ramis slapping the material into coherent shape...if I'm doing Ramis an injustice, I beg forgiveness.)
For once we don't have any soul-stealing or wish-granting...no pacts with the Devil here. Ghostbusters is more like an H. P. Lovecraft thing (a straight out Cthulhu Mythos Ghostbusters movie would be good) with a Sumerian arch-demon standing for one of the Great Old Ones. A series of paranormal events (a demon appearing in a refrigerator, an onion-headed ghost in a hotel, etc) prefigures the coming of Gozer The Traveller...while the Ghostbusters battle the preliminary manifestatons and the EPA, Gozer gets sprung from wherever by the sexual interactions of the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster, giant horned devil-doggies possessing the bodies of Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis...Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ackroyd, and Ernie Hudson find themselves in an art-deco skyscraper-top temple facing off with a bizarre flat-topped punk chick. "Are you a God?" she asks, and when Ayckroyd very stupidly replies, "No," she says, "then DIE---!" a telling little bit of business that embodies a genuinely mythic sensibility, and sets up the very memorable climax, in which Gozer reappears as the hundred foot-tall Sta-Puft Marshmallow man, one of the best comic images ever, who gets blown up in an excellent explosion, with the blast ripping a hole in the clouds above...Richard Edlund did the special effects on pretty short notice, and some of them turned out surprisingly well.
8. Robert DeNiro as Louis Cyphre, Angel Heart, 1987
How terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.
Angel Heart, directed very well by Alan Parker, is one of the few literary adaptations that improves on the novel it's based on (William Hjortsberg's Falling Angel), and boy is it a creepy thing....shifting a bunch of the action from New York to New Orleans was exactly the move to make. Absolutely the most atmospheric film on this list. John Huston thought this was the greatest movie he'd ever seen...until he got to the end and all the supernatural stuff kicked in big time. But he shouldn't have let that bother him. It makes quite enough sense if you buy into the basic assumptions, and anyway, he let his own father play the Devil in a sell-your-soul flick, so he really can't complain...
In Angel Heart, Mickey Rourke is a really seedy NYC private eye named Harry Angel, who's approached by a scary lawyer named Macintosh (played by one of the guys who does those "gold" commercials) who works for a sinister fellow named Louis Cyphre (get it?), played by Robert DeNiro... Mr. Cyphre is owed a debt by a missing ex-crooner named Johnny Favorite, and he wants Angel to track Favorite down. Favorite, it seems, went off to WWII, got his face shot up, had plastic surgery, wound up in a sanatorium, then booked...the trail leads Angel from a weird black church in Harlem to Voodoo jazz dives in Nawlins, and a wild sexual encounter with Lisa Bonet. whose child may or may not have been fathered by the devil...ultimately Angel wises up in a way that, well...brings him no profit. Mr. Cyphre pops up for regular reports, getting steadily more more frightening, and turns out to be the worst employer imaginable. My favorite scene is the thing with DeNiro stuffing the egg (symbolic of the soul, as he tells poor Angel) into his mouth. During the closing credits, Angel's descent in an elevator is intercut with all this stuff involving wheels and spinning fans, shades of the wheel imagery in The Dead...I remember being struck by that the very first time I saw the film...
9. Christopher Walken as Gabriel, The Prophecy, 1995
Long time ago, I was watching Biloxi Blues on cable, and I remember thinking that Christopher Walken, who plays the drill sergeant, would be ideal casting for Legion, the demonically possessed State Trooper who makes everyone so miserable in The Dead...Walken's delivery would've been perfect. Next time you read the book, think of Legion sounding like him, particularly that scene with the gasoline. Boy, that would've been cool in a movie.
Well damn, that Walken-as-demon idea must've been hanging out there in the aether somewhere, because The Prophecy trades on it like crazy, more power to it. Brilliantly written flick, filled with lines I wish I'd come up with myself...script is by Gregory Widen, who also directed...it does a very good job on the ideas, even though the ending is a bit weak, due to budget constraints, I understand. Story posits a second war in heaven...sorta like Iblis, Gabriel, the Angel of Death, decided human beings sucked a while back (he calls us the "talking monkeys") and has been working to our detriment in a three-way battle with God and Satan. Satan, by the way, is a very effective Viggo Mortensen, who almost made this list, but just doesn't get enough screen-time. After a gruesome murder in NYC (wierd eyeless hermaphoriditic earthly angel-body has turned up in an alley) Gabriel, Satan, an unfallen angel named Simon (Eric Stoltz)and befuddled doubting priest-turned-cop Elias Koteas all converge on an Arizona town where there's a very nasty human soul that the devils want to collect. There's some cool subtle stuff, such as a little girl telling Simon that her name is Mary, and he says, "that's a nice name," and you realize he's personally familiar with the Blessed Virgin...there are also some really funny scenes, like when Gabriel is questioning some kids, and he's letting them blow things up with his trumpet, and he leaves them with the advice, "study your math, it's the key to the universe." But Walken is also pretty stone scary (as is Mortensen), and when he tells a waitress at a cafe that "I don't think I'll be through here again," and she replies, "Suits me," we really sympathize...
Fun fact for all you Dead fans: the guy who did the prosthetic makeup work on this movie is named Scott Patton, and he went to work for KNB-EFX, and he read The Dead and showed it to Greb Nicotero, telling him it would make the best zombie movie ever, and that's why that whole KNB thing happened.
10. Al Pacino as John Milton, The Devil's Advocate, 1997
I think All that Money Can Buy is a better movie than The Devil's Advocate, but I think Devil's Advocate has a slightly better devil. If push came absolutely to shove, and I had to chose between Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch and Al Pacino's John Milton, I'd give the latter a teeny-tiny edge. Might just be because All That Money Can Buy has these "American" preoccupations and is kinda anti-capitalist, pro-lawyer and left-wing, while Devil's Advocate is quite anti-humanistic and bashes the hell out of lawyers, and all that goes a long way with me. Certainly, if you don't like potshots at shysters, this won't be the devil movie for you...
Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, a handsome young up-and-coming southern attorney who attracts the attention of a big New York law firm after springing a really horrible child molester, who we find out is a child murderer later on... Keanu's potential employer is John Milton, whose office is a concrete bunker (great production design), and who has a disturbing big-nosed, big-thumbed pinocchio-puppet clown statue on his desk...Milton quizzes Lomax, sees that he's well along the road to perdition, and signs him up. Lomax cuts quite a swathe in the big apple, rescuing lots of bad guys and destroying his marriage (to the adorable Charlize Theron) in the process....at every turn, Milton, with a truly satanic gleam in his eye, sizes him up (and trains him) by offering him alternatives to doing the wrong thing, but Lomax always comes up with some sort of shitty-if-clever justification for sliding farther down the slippery slope. Ultimately, though, he has second thoughts when his wife commits suicide, he discovers he's working for the Devil Himself, and that Satan is his dad...
You hear the expression tour de force way too much, I'm afraid, but in this movie, Pacino really delivers one. He should just come off as this funny little middle-aged Italian actor (check out the thickness of those elevator heels on his shoes), but you just can't regard him that way. Yeah, he looks kinda wasted, but his eyes just burn all that more in those dark sockets. He's working with great material and really throws himself into it (the screenplay is by Jonathan Lenkin and Tony Gilroy, from a novel by Andre Neiderman); once again, I wish I'd written some of this stuff. He gets a lot of screen time, and has several knockout monologues, the final one going on at some length...it's truly clever, well-informed, and above all, climactic...he systematically punctures all of junior's rationalizations, then reveals his master plan...if Keanu will just play ball, he'll get to ride the crest of a worldwide tsunami of lawyers. There's some action at the end, and a few special effects, but the finale leans almost entirely on the words and the acting. Great, great hilarious devil-stuff...
If that's your cup of tea.