The Devil's Advocate

I have enjoyed a weekend of devilry. For some that might mean deflowering a virgin goat in an abandoned church whilst listening to Black Sabbath or drinking a nightcap of blood whilst reading Anton LaVey's The Satanic Rituals but for me it meant The Reaping and Witchfinder General, one a so-so kind of film while the other is a British horror classic. Both films proved that Satan has been a tricky figure to pin down throughout history. Witchfinders such as Matthew Hopkins, around the time of the English Civil War, were convinced that lonely old spinsters who were fond of the company of cats ought to be burnt at the stake or chucked in ponds for the sin of laying down at night with a hoofed visitor. Yet with the fading away of a religious influence on modern society, Satan became less a figure to fear and more a figure of fun, forever cast as a bearded joker in a tight-fitting red outfit with a forked tail, horns and carrying a red trident. Funnily enough, it was such a figure, played by the marvellously named Herbert Fux, who got the nuns worked up to all manner of mischief in Jess Franco's Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun.

Satanism and witchcraft, meanwhile, became little more than convenient justification for the actions of Alister Crowley, the man who the Daily Express called the Wickedest Man In The World and whose experimenting with sex-magick in Egypt, Sicily and on the banks of Loch Ness came to a lonely end in a boarding house in Hastings. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page's purchase of Crowley's old Boleskine House in Scotland and the Rolling Stones' use of the titles Sympathy For The Devil and Their Satanic Majesties Request implied that both thought devilry to be no more than a gimmick.

Gimmick, you say? Not for long, though, as the queues around the block, the box office takings and the hysterical teens pleading with the clergy to be saved from damnation all heralded the terrifying return to the movies of the devil in the shape of a blood-soaked young girl in The Exorcist holding a crucifix aloft. Then, one year later, The Omen told audiences they were one step closer to the end of the world as Gregory Peck held down his son in a church before attempting to stab him with the Seven Daggers of Meggido to bring an end to the third Antichrist as Jerry Goldsmith's Ave Satani blared on the soundtrack. From the low of those years previous, Lucifer had hit a cinematic high but as with his sitting alongside God in Heaven, the only way to go was down.

Where are the recent examples of devilry in the movies? Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate? Please...had the scriptwriters of Scent Of A Woman thought that Major Frank Slade, having died and gone to Hell, would be reborn on Earth as the devil incarnate slicing off doorstops of ham, they might have reconsidered ending their movie as they did. Robert de Niro as Louis Cyphere in Alan Parker's Angel Heart? Calling himself Mr S. Atan would only have been slightly less subtle and just in case anyone takes a fancy to the idea of mentioning 'Mad' Jack Nicholson in The Witches Of Eastwick, be honest with yourself. He was approaching an age back then when the idea of a self-styled horny li'l devil with greying hair sprouting from his ears, baggy grey Y-fronts and a habit of lashing out at unsuspecting motorists in downtown Los Angeles with a golf club was laughable. How terrifying that the future of devilry is held by a one with prostrate trouble and a tendency towards forgetfulness.

Let's not forget who Satan is reputed to be. Once named Lucifer, this is the archangel who declared war on God and was cast down to Hell when defeated. Thinking it "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven", Milton's Paradise Lost convenes a meeting in Pandemonium and calls his followers to arms in a lifelong battle against God:

To do aught good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist...

Satan, therefore, bides his time in an eternal battle against good and Paradise Lost characterises Satan as a being of subtle tricks, wiles and never ending patience, seeking not to conquer Heaven but to have his actions eternally visible on God's works. This playful yet sinister perversion of God's will is demonstrated in few of the films mentioned thus far, with the only possible exceptions being Pazuzu's taunting of Father Merrin in The Exorcist or Azazel's playful and patient fooling with Denzel Washington's cop in Fallen through the use of The Rolling Stones' Time Is On My Side.

Who would have guessed that when Rod Steiger said during End Of Days, "There are forces at work here you couldn't possibly comprehend" that he was talking about the ineptitude of the writer and director for it is there that the fault lies. In as much as horror is usually drawn to reflect the fears of society at the relevant time, the use of the Devil in fiction should allow filmmakers the opportunity to present older, more ancient fears. Given that the majority of horror directors are slash'n'hack vendors no more capable of drawing true horror out of a film than they are at ensuring their psychos stay dead, it's unlikely that we'll find a truly unique talent deciding to use the base terrors represented by the Devil in an effective manner. A Lynch or a Cronenberg could do much with a play on Satanism, invoking the strangeness of Twin Peaks' Another Place or the chilly blue emptiness of Crash as a spin on Hell. Neither seem content to use such cliched movie monsters in their work, of which the Devil is undoubtedly one, but it is only with the imagination with which such directors imbue their works that we will yet see a terrifying yet sympathetic portrayal of a being of such noticeable wealth and taste.

Last updated: 19/04/2018 01:43:32

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