Friday, May 18, 2012

Darkness, Visible

I’ve been thinking about the devil recently, both as a broad concept of evil and a solid personification of same. I’m not a big fan. He might have great connections and a large part in some of the most fun activities around, but by the time you realize that those glorious fireworks are starting to feel a lot like shrapnel you've picked up on the fact that the devil is a micromanaging power freak extraordinaire; sweetness and light when you’re in his corner and diabolically malicious when you try to squirm out from under the thumb.

In his defense, he…well, really, there’s no defense. That’s the ‘fallen’ point of being a fallen angel. It takes great effort and imagination to get tossed out of heaven, and even if the transaction was delivered with a diplomatic “You’ve got a lot of valuable talents, but I’m just not seeing the synergy I was hoping for” epistle from The Almighty in a divine conference room with complimentary coffee and cinnamon buns on the table, it’s still gotta hurt when you’ve hit bottom.

The standard Judeo-Christian line is that everything was created by the deity in a state of perfection, but everything can be corrupted. Guess by who. Upon his rather undignified expulsion from heaven to the less cushy digs of hell, the devil decided that there’s nothing touched by grace which can’t be enhanced with a few soot-stained fingerprints here and there (his, specifically) and he’s been doing his Yang best to pervert the divine Yin ever since. Read the book if you need a refresher; you can even choose which book. Most religions have a similar heaven & hell, falling from grace story and a few really get their teeth into it.

I’m not going to tinker with undeclared, they-might-be-the-devil theories, tempting though they might be. Freddy, Jason, Jigsaw, Hannibal Lecter, Michael Meyers, Leatherface and the entire cast of the Hostel films are all deeply flawed souls but they’re not the devil individually or as a unit. I never bought the idea that Marcellus Wallace is the devil in Pulp Fiction, while some theorize that there’s a soul in his briefcase and the bandage on the back of his neck covering the mark of the beast. James Mason isn’t the devil in The Verdict despite surface similarities and Jack Warden referring to him the Prince of Darkness, and the actual Prince of Darkness doesn’t even appear in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (it’s more anti-matter than anti-christ). Dennis Hopper’s indelible Frank Booth in Blue Velvet comes close but doesn’t quite get the satanic cigar.

Max Von Sydow is probably the only actor who has played both Christ (The Greatest Story Ever Told) and the Anti-Christ (Needful Things), in performances running slightly against the grain; his Jesus is appropriately reverent, if a touch creepy (strange line readings and impossibly intense blue eyes) and his devil is warm, friendly and utterly charming until he convinces you of the merit of bludgeoning somebody to death for his entertainment. He also pitches a magnificently petty hissy fit when asked why he doesn’t simply kill all the local townsfolk in one fell swoop: “Because I can’t work miracles!” he bellows. “I'm not the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I'm just one lonely guy…”

One New York critic opined that “It’s too bad Father Karras died at the end of the movie. I know some kids I’d like him to take a look at.”

Peter Cook, bless his cirrhosis-laiden soul, was a far better comedian than conventional actor and his devil in Bedazzled just phones it in. To be fair, that might have been his intention all along; once somebody’s sold their soul, their demands are probably garden variety desires and vices (power, money, or the hoochie-coochie-coo of their choice) and the devil’s simply too bored with it all to put much effort into it.

Laughing with you or laughing at you doesn’t matter. As long as he’s laughing, it’s all good by him.

Constantine was a high-budget, solid moneymaker that nobody seemed particularly enthused about upon its initial release. Matrix fans were disappointed that Keanu Reeves wasn’t doing his cyber-messiah shtick and fans of John Constantine’s exploits in Hellblazer (the original UK-centric comic series) didn’t appreciate his relocation from grungy London to the seedier parts of LA. I was unimpressed at the time, but it stuck with me. Locale aside, it holds onto the freaky spirit of the comic and tweaks its Thatcherite satire into a deadpan acceptance of the occult by somebody who’s no longer frightened or impressed by it (Reeves’ Constantine is dying of lung cancer but looks like he’s fighting a migraine and the legions of hell pale in comparison). There’s a great sequence where he successfully interrogates a demon by threatening him with exorcism and salvation- what could be more unappealing to a diabolical entity?

When lucifer shows up for a tete-a-tete before dragging Constantine to hell, he looks like the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to chat with at a dinner party. There’s an unholy vanity about him; his hair is well combed, if rather greasy. He has a fondness for white suits, but can’t keep them clean. It’s a nice shorthand for

Christ said Judge not, that ye not be judged. The Anti-Christ says Hey, we’re here, let’s cut out the middle man and save a little. Be my guest. Judge away. Treat yourself. The sacred and the profane have been fighting it out ever since.

Mortensen nails the concept of The Beast as an all-out beast. His satan is straightforward and not at all charming. He’s been sulking since his expulsion, unpleasantly indifferent to mankind. He appears as a vision to X, who wisely tries to walk away before he quietly mentions that “I could lay you flat and fill your mouth with your mother’s own feces. Or we could talk.”
Just as wisely, she decides to talk. The Prophecy shares it’s rogue angel angle with Constantine, and satan is more interested in nailing Gabriel than with the lot of mankind. “I’m not doing this because I love mankind or care about you, but earth under Gabriel would be another hell, and that’s one hell too many.”

Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, Christopher Walken, Daniel Day Lewis, James Woods, Gary Oldman, and Donald Sutherland have never played the devil. They should all get a chance. (Woods did voice Hades, Lord of the Underworld, in an otherwise uninspired Disney cartoon of the Hercules legend, but he really needs to sink his teeth into a traditional old nick). Tim Curry looks great in red with matching horns in Legend, but he’s not 100% diabolic. DeNiro is a quietly prissy dark lord in Angel Heart, but his alleged secret identity is telegraphed to the audience far too early for any real effect. Ray Walston is great fun but not remotely close to scary in Damn Yankees, and let’s not even dignify Harvey Keitel’s riff in Little Nicky.


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