Total Recall

Total Recall: Devil Movies

With The Devil Inside hitting theaters, we look at some memorable films featuring ol' Lucifer himself.

by | January 5, 2012 | Comments

The Exorcist

Beelzebub. Ol’ Scratch. The Lord of Darkness. The Dark Prince. The devil has no shortage of nicknames — and no shortage of opportunities on the big screen, where he’s surfaced repeatedly over the years, adding a dash of brimstone to some of our favorite (and not-so-favorite) dramas, comedies, and horror flicks. With the supernatural mockumentary The Devil Inside wending its way into theaters this weekend, we decided now would be a fine time to take a look back at some of Lucifer’s previous adventures in Hollywood. Grab your Bible and unbutton your coat — just in time for the January winter chill, it’s time for a devilishly super-sized Total Recall!


Angel Heart

Mickey Rourke as the hero and Robert De Niro as an oddly manicured, sulfur-effusing version of the devil? It might sound like director Alan Parker got his casting backwards when he filmed Angel Heart, but things were different back in 1987 — as any of this noirish cult favorite’s many fans could attest. Rourke plays Harry Angel, a New Orleans detective hired by a client (De Niro) for a mysterious mission involving Lisa Bonet, raw chicken, and lots of blood. Somewhat notorious for annoying Bonet’s TV dad, Bill Cosby, when it was released, Angel Heart wasn’t a commercial hit, although it earned positive reviews (Empire’s Ian Nathan called it “A diabolical treat with Rourke and De Niro in fine form”).

Angel on my Shoulder

The final film of director Archie Mayo’s distinguished career, Angel on My Shoulder was essentially a thin rewrite of Here Comes Mr. Jordan — and perhaps not coincidentally, both were written by screenwriter Harry Segall. In the first film, God comes to Earth as Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains); the second time around, Rains plays Nick, a.k.a. Satan, who schemes to use a deceased gangster’s soul in order to disgrace a buttoned-down judge (Paul Muni). The results are predictable, and the critics were predictably dismissive; as Bosley Crowther shrugged for the New York Times, “The story is so imitative — and is repeated so dutifully — that it’s hard to feel any more towards it than a mildly nostalgic regard.”



In most of the devil’s on-screen incarnations, the character is portrayed as an impossibly charismatic man — so it only stands to reason that in the 2000 version of Bedazzled (a remake of the 1968 film starring Dudley Moore and Peter Cook), when the filmmakers decided to make he a she, they turned to the impossibly vivacious Elizabeth Hurley to fill the role. Here, the curvier Satan is after a love-starved goober (Brendan Fraser), who sells his soul in exchange for seven progressively more disastrous wishes. Most critics found it inferior to the original, but Hurley brought considerable presence to the role, as pointed out by Christopher Smith the Bangor Daily News: “Hurley is great fun to watch, a Faustian powerhouse of curves, smoky eyes and big hair who sounds exactly like Jackie Collins doing an imitation of Madonna’s pan-European accent. It’s creepy, but effective.”



To those who purchased tickets to Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves might be the devil; alas, in 2005’s Constantine, he plays the hero of the story, a chain-smoking sorcerer locked in combat against Lucifer (Peter Stormare). Adapted from the long-running Vertigo comic Hellblazer, the movie was a $230 million box office hit in spite of largely dismissive reviews. Michael Booth of the Denver Post was one of the scribes who sided with the audience, arguing that it “takes itself just seriously enough to put on a good show” and saying, “Reeves earns some theatrical redemption, the demons put a scare into the waywardly righteous, and there are plenty of evil-duders left over for a sequel.”



A movie whose climax involves Ralph Macchio defeating Steve Vai in a guitar duel may not sound like a critical winner, but Walter Hill’s Crossroads is actually quite a bit better than that description might suggest. Scripted by kung fu black belt-turned-itinerant blues musician John Fusco (who later went on to write the Young Guns movies, among others), Crossroads follows the adventures of a young, Robert Johnson-obsessed guitarist (Macchio) who falls in with one of Johnson’s former partners (Joe Seneca) and ends up drawn into a battle against the devil himself (Robert Judd). The Steve Vai thing? Yeah, it stretches credulity — but not enough to dissuade Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Just when I’m ready to despair of a movie coming up with a fresh plot, a movie like Crossroads comes along to remind me that acting, writing and direction can redeem any plot and make any story new.”


Damn Yankees

Plenty of baseball fans (and not a few players) have loudly proclaimed they’d give anything if their team could beat the Yankees — and in this modern spin on the legend of Faust, when one bitter player swears he’d sell his soul for the privilege of a victory over the Bronx Bombers, the devil (Ray Walston) takes him up on the offer. Featuring a sharp script, classic songs, and game footage of real-life Yanks, Damn Yankees is a longtime favorite among musical fans; as TIME Magazine wrote upon its release, “As a cinemusical, Yankees manages to steal home by a wide margin.”



As far as filmgoers who went to see Lady in the Water and The Happening were concerned, M. Night Shyamalan might as well have been the devil — but he didn’t star as the titular nasty in Devil, serving instead as the producer of this nifty-sounding supernatural thriller about a group of folks trapped in an elevator with ol’ Scratch himself. “Don’t let the Shyamalan snickering sway you from seeing this in theaters,” warned Cinematical’s Peter Hall. “You’re bound to see it on DVD or cable down the line and regret that it took you that long to discover how good of a film it actually is.”


The Devil and Daniel Webster

What could possibly make life for a 19th-century New Hampshire farmer more difficult? His foolish decision to make a deal with the devil — as outlined in The Devil and Daniel Webster, the 1941 adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story about a man (James Craig) who sells his soul to Beelzebub (Walter Huston) in exchange for a measly seven years of prosperity. When his contract’s up, he wants out — and turns to the famed statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to help him escape damnation. Full of fine performances and fiery populism, Webster is what Filmcritic’s Jake Euker called “Spooky, light-hearted, and never less than a joy to watch.”


The Devil and Max Devlin

If the devil is real, does he wear colorful sweaters and eat pudding? This is one of the troubling questions raised by the early ’80s Disney comedy The Devil and Max Devlin, in which a sleazy landlord (Elliott Gould) dies and goes to hell, where the devilish Max Satin (last name pronounced with a long A, natch) tells him he can rescue himself from eternal damnation by tricking three people into selling their souls. Sadly, most critics felt Devlin failed to live up to its intriguingly non-Disney premise, with the New York Times’ Vincent Canby offering one of the few bits of limited praise: “The performances are attractive though, with one exception, not especially memorable.”


The Devil’s Advocate

Given his vulpine grin and predilection for scenery-chewing, it’s somewhat surprising that it took until 1997 for Al Pacino to play the devil — but when he finally got around to it, he made it count: Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate is a loopy blend of camp and horror in which a hungry young rural attorney (Keanu Reeves) is recruited into a shady big-city firm by its charismatic senior partner (Pacino), to the growing chagrin of his increasingly unstable wife (Charlize Theron). A $152 million hit, Advocate inspired praise from critics like Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who called it “A literate meditation on human weakness and a hipped-out horror movie all in one.”


End of Days

Arriving smack in the middle of Y2K hysteria, End of Days treated filmgoers to the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a world-weary ex-cop whose post-retirement gig as a bodyguard for a banker (Gabriel Byrne) turns deadly when the banker is possessed by Satan, who’s on a mission to impregnate a woman (Robin Tunney) whose womb has been preordained to fulfill a prophecy that will bring about — you guessed it — the end of days. A $211 million hit in spite of hellishly bad reviews (and three Razzie nominations), Days did have a few fans in the critical community, including Margaret A. McGurk of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who called it “Loud, lurid, bloody and ridiculously entertaining.”


The Exorcist

The devil’s taken plenty of forms during his various screen outings, but he’s arguably never been more terrifying than he was when he inhabited the body of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in one of Hollywood’s scariest, most epic showdowns between good and evil. A horror film so successful that it forever altered the course of director William Friedkin’s career and sent producers on a fruitless, decades-long quest to recapture its magic, The Exorcist inspired Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman to write, “Some movies aren’t just movies. They’re closer to voodoo — they channel currents larger and more powerful than themselves.”



As you’ve probably guessed from the length of this week’s list, the devil has long been a popular fixture in cinema. In fact, he popped up on the screen in the silent film era, wreaking devilish havoc in the Danish horror movie/documentary Häxan — but for a good cause, as director Benjamin Christensen (who played the devil himself) meant to illustrate how superstition has historically driven people to destructive lengths. Calling it a “pioneering look at ancient Scandinavian witchcraft,” Filmcritic’s Christopher Null deemed the end result “impressive and genuinely disturbing.”



If you don’t think “family-friendly fantasy” when you think of Ridley Scott, it might be because the director’s lone foray into the genre, 1986’s Legend, failed to generate much excitement among critics or filmgoers — even with a storyline that pitted a heroic Tom Cruise in a life-or-death battle against the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry). Despite the marvelously hammy possibilities inherent in casting Curry to play the devil in a film about a unicorn quest — and the movie’s Academy Award-nominated makeup — it was destined for cult status among critics like Slant’s Ed Gonzalez, who insisted, “Legend is a Gothic fairy tale brought to life.”


Mister Frost

In this little-remembered 1990 thriller, Jeff Goldblum plays a mysterious Frenchman who, when questioned by the police about a dead body, claims to have 24 of them buried on the grounds of his estate. Naturally, he’s committed to an asylum, whereupon he encounters a doctor (Kathy Baker) to whom he confesses he’s — surprise! — Satan. Generally rather silly, Mister Frost made barely a ripple during its run and encountered some fairly nasty reviews, but even some of the worst had to acknowledge the genius of casting Goldblum as the ultimate bad guy. “Thousands of actors have played Lucifer,” decreed the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson, “but none has ever given him this particular charismatic brand of idiosyncratic loopiness.”


Oh, God! You Devil

It could certainly be argued that the world never needed one sequel to the heartwarming family hit Oh, God!, let alone two — and that certainly seemed to be the popular response to the third installment in the trilogy, which debuted to weak box office and overwhelmingly rotten reviews in 1984. On the other hand, having series star George Burns play the Almighty as well as his eternal adversary was, at least in theory, a pretty nifty twist — and if we have to have an evil being battling the creator for the souls of man, he might as well be a kindly-looking old man, right? Janet Maslin of the New York Times agreed, sighing, “The material is extremely slight, but at least it’s benign.”


The Passion of the Christ

Plenty of blues songs will do their best to make you believe the devil is a woman, but Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ takes that argument literally, presenting Rosalinda Celentano as the chilling embodiment of evil. As an androgynous creepshow version of Satan, Celentano was a crucial part of one of the biggest box office successes of 2004 — and although not even $611 million in global box office was enough to secure Passion Fresh status on the Tomatometer, it still resonated with critics like Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, who predicted, “There are scenes in The Passion that will remain forever with those who see it.”


Prince of Darkness

Five years after kicking off his “Apocalypse Trilogy” with The Thing, John Carpenter gave us Prince of Darkness, which imagines that the devil is a mysterious green liquid that’s been entombed beneath a church in L.A. Yes, yes, it all sounds rather silly. But it stars Donald Pleasance, contains an appearance from Alice Cooper (playing the colorfully named Street Schizo), and was deemed by KFOR’s Blake Davis “One of John Carpenter’s most underrated films, gory, grim and good.”


The Prophecy

Pit Christopher Walken in a battle against the devil, and you might be tempted to give the odds to Walken — and in 1995’s The Prophecy, in which Walken plays a P.O.’d version of the angel Gabriel, (cough) hellbent on sparking a rebellion against God, it’s actually a pretty fair fight. Who could give a gleefully malevolent Walken a run for his money, you ask? Why, none other than Viggo Mortensen, whose portrayal of Hell’s most famous resident lends The Prophecy a handful of surprisingly potent chills. Most critics were rather unimpressed with the end result, but David Kronke of the Los Angeles Times spoke for the more receptive minority when he wrote that it “has an odd appeal that keeps you engaged, if only to find out just how strange it dares to get.”


Rosemary’s Baby

The movie in which Satan adds “rapist” to his gross résumé, Rosemary’s Baby found Roman Polanski using his remarkable gift for disquieting cinema to profoundly creepy use, adapting Ira Levin’s novel about a young wife (Mia Farrow) whose husband (John Cassavetes) secretly offers her womb to a coven of devil worshippers in exchange for help with his career. It’s a horrifying premise, and Farrow’s performance brings the whole thing startlingly to life; as Chris Vognar wrote for the Dallas Morning News, “The devil may come in many forms, but few have been more entertaining.”


The Witches of Eastwick

Of all the actors who’ve played the devil, perhaps Jack Nicholson is the most ideally suited to the role — as evidenced by the irresistible charm he brought to The Witches of Eastwick, the campy, deeply flawed adaptation of John Updike’s randy 1984 novel about a trio of single New England ladies (Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer) whose wish for the perfect man produces some seriously unintended results. Though it’s wildly over the top and at least faintly sexist, most critics were too taken with Nicholson’s magnetic performance as the wicked Daryl Van Horne to mind. “Hell’s belles!” exclaimed Rita Kempley of the Washington Post. “Nicholson’s back. And that old Jack magic has us in his spell.”

Check back for reviews of The Devil Inside as they come in, and take a look at the rest of our Total Recall archives.


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