October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best and most unforgettable movie devils is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
The devil is in the details, they say, and one of those details when it comes to democracies is that the best candidates don’t always win. What we have below is a list of the best onscreen appearances by Satan, and with seven of us voting there’s lots of room for oddball choices and missed opportunities. So no, Robert De Niro’s brilliantly slick Louis Cypher from Angel Heart (1987) didn’t make the list below, and I can only apologize on behalf of the Boo Crew.
That said, the ten that did make the cut include some of the best and most unforgettable Satans to ever grace the screen. Some are funny and others are personable, but all of them are darkly evil in their own ways. Some mess with your flesh, others with your heart, but all of them are after a tattered piece of your very soul. So sit back, say a prayer to your best bub Beelzebub, and enjoy this list crafted with love by Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and myself.
10. The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
Jack Nicholson makes his entrance in The Witches of Eastwick by falling asleep during a musical recital. While he sleeps, he makes ungodly, obnoxious noises disrupting the performance. Outside of Nicholson referring to himself as a “horny little devil,” the movie never explicitly says outright that he is the devil, but it couldn’t possibly be more clear. Instead, Nicholson goes by a name that everyone forgets, but the man always leaves an impression. He buys a large mansion in the small town and immediately begins to make the moves on a group of three friends – Alex (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer). Nicholson’s Satan is an obnoxious, disgusting pig of a man. He’s vulgar and knows no bounds, and yet he’s irresistibly charming. All three women are drawn to him, unable to deny him no matter how repulsive he may be. Nicholson’s turn as the devil isn’t all hellfire and brimstone, but rather that of a chauvinistic pervert that gets way too handsy. Is it an accurate portrayal of Satan? I can’t say. But Nicholson certainly nails the old, rich, white man. (Chris Coffel)
9. Jigoku (1960)
The depiction of hell that we see in Jigoku is rendered coldly but with an extreme relish. When Shirō enters this hot domain we see other fallen souls suffering tremendously; they are being boiled alive and burned and flayed and dismembered and beaten by demons. It’s a long hard stare at a failed humanity. There is a warning in every frame but also an inescapable inevitability. Judging over everything is Lord Emma, a creature who has no feelings for you but holds great satisfaction in his deeds and his judgements. There have been more violent illustrations of damnation but few as haunting, and like the portrait artist who finds himself a corpse by the climax, you sense there is a toll being paid to capture such imagery on screen. Director Nobuo Nakagawa leaves a piece of himself in the frame. (Brad Gullickson)
8. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
There are many excellent movies on this list, but how many of them inspired an all-time great Simpson’s “Treehouse of Horror” segment? The Devil and Daniel Webster, also known as All That Money Can Buy, is an enchanting fable, a social metaphor, and a tale of good and evil that’s as old as time. The stunning black and white cinematography and smoky cool atmosphere perfectly set the scene for Mr. Scratch (the wickedly wonderful Walter Huston), a conniving incarnation of Satan. He whispers in ears and strikes deals beyond your wildest dreams. This version of the devil is a salesman with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Just be prepared for when he comes to collect his debts. Or better yet, just read the fine print. (Anna Swanson)
7. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
You may be wondering what Martin Scorsese‘s critically acclaimed and highly controversial film about Jeebus is doing on a list of horror films, but as a recovering Catholic I’m comfortable saying it absolutely belongs here. A dark fantasy with torture, magic, sex, and the devil? Yeah, like all tales pulled from the bible, it’s horror. Christ heads into the desert like a first-timer at Burning Man in search of God’s love, and he’s tested by Satan in various forms. A cobra, a lion, a flame — he resists the manipulation of all three.
It’s the devil’s later appearance that lands it a spot on this list, though. As Christ suffers on the cross, screams echoing around him from other crucified saps and the wailing women at their feet, the world suddenly goes silent. A young girl appears and reveals she’s his guardian angel sent by God to save his only son. It’s a sweet moment of mercy as the girl pulls the large nails from his flesh, kisses the wounds, and sets him free to live a normal life with love and family. Years pass, sex is had, children result, happiness is felt, and then he realizes that his guardian angel was actually peddling one last temptation from Satan — that of being a human and living a normal, joyful life. It’s an especially devious act, and the devil’s choice to appear as an angelic child is even more deceitful (and brilliant). Also, and this is both tangential to the topic at hand and perhaps a bit controversial in its own right, but Peter Gabriel’s score is a magical, propulsive listen that makes for a perfect soundtrack while enjoying some, uh, “devilish” times of your own. (Rob Hunter)
6. Häxan (1922)
Would every film be improved if its director had to appear, on-screen, as Satan himself? I think we can all agree that the answer is a resounding, fully ironic, hell yeah. Benjamin Christensen, Häxan’s diabolical Danish writer-director, doesn’t just don demonic garb, he goes all in, baby; flickering an obscene tongue, leering lasciviously, and suggestively churning butter with all the subtly of a bull in a china shop. A dramatized account of the historical and scientific roots of the superstitions surrounding witchcraft, Part 2 of Häxan depicts the seductive temptations that lure women into concert with Beelzebub. Christensen’s depiction of Satan is less smooth-talking dandy than a barrel-chested, pervy force of nature. And, truth be told, Christensen is obviously having the time of his life. Sure, directors have long indulged themselves in the odd cameo or star role. But few have had quite as much visible glee as Christensen, who writhes, thrusts, and gyrates so compellingly, he makes Satanic pacts look like a viable option. (Meg Shields)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists