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Watch: A Video Essay on Satan in Film History

Watch: A Video Essay on Satan in Film History


…horror and doubt distract
His troubl’d thoughts, and from the bottom stir

The Hell within him, for within him Hell

He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell

One step no more then from himself can fly

By change of place… 

—John Milton, Paradise
Lost
, Book IV 

The character of Satan seems far more appealing to
filmmakers than the character of God. This may be for reasons of propriety: one
should not, perhaps, make too many images of God. But since when has Hollywood
cared about anything other than money and stardom? God isn’t any good for
either. Omnipotence is just too boring.

There are devils in most films, because most films are
melodramas of one sort of another, and no melodrama works very well without
some embodiment of evil. But Satan himself (or herself or theirself or anyself
— Satan, like every angel, fallen or not, is any gender and every gender) is a
less common figure. One of the most powerful Satanic representations in film
history wasn’t even technically of Satan: it was Mephistopheles in Murnau’s Faust, still one of the most visually
interesting portrayals of satanic power. 

The problem with portraying Satan is that it is difficult to
capture the full horror he is supposed to be capable of. Less is more: the
films that go for gothic bombast tend to end up causing laughter more than
horror. Satans with horns and tails are downright goofy, and rarely appear in
anything except broad (and usually unfunny) comedies. 

But the Satans that seem most human — the Satans that
reflect the satanic desires we ourselves carry within us  — those Satans can dig deep into our
nightmares. I’ve never forgotten Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart since I first saw the movie as a teenager. DeNiro was a
truly frightening Satan not just because he’s a great actor, but also because
he’s a great actor who’s played Satanic humans such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. These days, it seems to me,
the most Satanic character on our screens is Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal, who
vividly, frighteningly captures the charisma that still exudes from the pages
of Milton’s Paradise Lost, about
which scholars still argue whether Milton was, as William Blake insisted, “of
the Devil’s party.”

Given the horror available around the world every day,
perhaps we hold no real fear of Hell, and so no real fear of Satan. What could
Satan do that humans don’t already do to each other all the time? Filmmakers
seem to have realized this, and thus the relative rarity of seriously scary
Satans. We are more horrifying than any of our myths or fantasies. Anything
ascribed to Satan is something a person has already imagined.

The devil is a human dream, a dream of the human, and that’s
what makes him frightening.

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