This week’s question comes from commenter DrDischord:
What makes Beelzebot, the robot devil from Futurama, so great is how often he fails at embodying the most notable traits of either robot or devil. As the devil, he attempts cunning, but is also easily duped. As a robot, he’s emotional and often flustered. If it weren’t for his die-cast goatee, grandiloquent monologues, and skill with the golden fiddle, he’d barely qualify. First introduced in the show’s first season, Beelzebot rules over Robot Hell, built inside an abandoned New Jersey amusement park where Bender is sentenced to eternity after breaking his short-lived allegiance to the religion of Robotology. But his best moment doesn’t come until the season-four finale, “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings.” When Fry wants to become more proficient at playing the holophonor, Beelzebot offers him a deal to trade in his clumsy human hands for a hyper-competent robot pair. A spin of the devils’ wheel costs Beelzebot his own hands (“I only put my own name on there as a show of good faith!”), forcing him to create an overelaborate scheme to get them back. It’s one of Futurama’s best episodes, and would have been a fitting finale for the series.
Perhaps the most eminently reasonable Satan you could ask for, Laird Cregar’s “His Excellency” in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy Heaven Can Wait, manages to be as subtly menacing as he is deeply reassuring. Part of that is just Cregar: A rotund, reliably boisterous villain or comic figure for much of his short career, he’d embarked on the crash diet that would kill him just a year later (at only 31) and, while still burly in his immaculate magnate’s attire, is a mellifluous, dapper, politely solicitous devil. Hearing the self-pitying confession of Don Ameche’s recently deceased, rich layabout, His Excellency is all smiles and vaguely amused curiosity. Bookending the movie proper, he determines that, while impish old bird Ameche lived a life of “continuous misdemeanor,” his unenlightened but essentially harmless pursuit of pleasure doesn’t earn him a place in hell after all. (His Excellency does coldly push the red button on his executive desk to dump an intruding, gleefully wanton society dame into the red-tinted bowels, but mainly, one senses, because her implied sins are so dully obvious.) Cregar makes a twinkly but formidable gatekeeper, and his final judgment that Ameche’s lifelong conviction of his own worthlessness is wrong is ultimately quite moving. His Excellency has no ax to grind—and it’s a relief to think that the devil will play you fairer than you do yourself.
I don’t want to watch it as an adult, because I’m certain it won’t hold up, but as a kid, I loved the movie Bedazzled. And I’m talking about the version from 2000. More specifically, I loved Elizabeth Hurley as The Devil in Bedazzled. Even more specifically, Elizabeth Hurley as The Devil in Bedazzled was partially responsible for my sexual awakening. Please do not tell me Bedazzled is bad. I am almost certain to agree. A comedic retelling of the Faustian bargain starring Brendan Fraser doesn’t exactly sound like quality cinema. But Elizabeth Hurley as a pool-shooting, femme-fatale version of The Devil? Now, that’s just straight-up genius.
Thirty years ago on Saturday Night Live, Jon Lovitz gave the world a rendering of Satan that makes all others redundant. In a 1986 parody of The People’s Court, Lovitz plays a pudgy, ineffectual Mephistopheles who has to go to small claims court to defend himself against an unsatisfied customer: a bratty 18-year-old hairdresser named Vonda (Rosanna Arquette) with her barfly mother (Jan Hooks) in tow. Clad in what looks like an ill-fitting Halloween costume, Lovitz’s Devil tries to be menacing and theatrical, but he’s impotent against the glowering Judge Wapner (Phil Hartman). Lovitz is endearingly pathetic here. “I had it in writing!” he insists to Doug Llewellyn (Kevin Nealon) in a post-trial interview. No dice, Satan. As Wapner reminds him, “You may hold dominion over the nether regions, but I run this court!”
I’ll stand up for an obvious one: The Devil’s Advocate is a movie that seemingly exists entirely to slowly build to the point where Al Pacino, playing lawyer/devil John Milton (subtle!), can rip into a roaring anti-God monologue (among the charges: “HE’S AN ABSENTEE LANDLORD!”). At the time of its 1997 release, Pacino was often getting dinged for his hammier performances. But he spends a lot of Devil’s Advocate simmering with insinuating charm, which makes his climactic full-Pacino outbursts all the more satisfying; both the seductiveness and the fury of Satan are dangerously enjoyable to behold. Earlier the same year, Pacino gave one of his quieter late-period performances in Donnie Brasco, so I think he earned the right to showboat a little.
Peter Cook in Bedazzled (the original 1967 version, not the remake Kayla references above) is my Satan of choice. There’s nothing wrong with a scary Lucifer, or an aggressive one, but Cook’s genial contempt for just about everything seems most suited to the role. Satan has been everywhere and seen everything, most of it twice; he’s incredibly powerful, but he’s also never quite as powerful as he wants to be, a monster who’s really just a little boy desperate for Daddy to be proud of him again. Cook, who spends the movie tempting Dudley Moore through a variety of quickly backfiring wishes, nails the slow-burn charm and sullenness of a prep-school teenager who might give you cigarettes if you laugh at enough of his jokes. He humanizes a mythical figure without completely losing the menace, and the result is someone who you can cheer on even as you’re rooting for his latest victim to escape his clutches.
I guess it’s a testimony to how many memorable incarnations of Satan we’ve seen in pop culture that this many people have already answered and yet I’m still able to secure the first pick that came to my mind: Ray Wise on the canceled-too-soon CW series Reaper. We’d already seen Wise’s good side and evil side on Twin Peaks, so it was no surprise that he’d be able to pull off the role. But if only The CW had been on the radar of Emmy voters at the time, one would like to think that he would’ve at least earned a nod for his performance, if not an actual award. As you’d expect, Reaper’s take on the devil finds him as slick as a used car salesman and always ready with a witty rejoinder as he sends his son Sam (Bret Harrison) on soul-capturing assignments with his buddies Sock (Tyler Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez). But make no mistake: He’s still the Prince Of Darkness and he can turn on a dime, and when he does, the way Wise plays him, it’ll scare the living hell out of you.
I feel like I’m the only person who remembers Brimstone, a 1998 Fox show about a dead police detective—the hilariously named Ezekiel Stone—resurrected by the devil as a sort of infernal bounty hunter, tracking down wayward souls. (Sorry, Reaper, Brimstone did it first.) Peter Horton was fine as the mostly heroic Stone, but it was John Glover’s Devil that made the show worth watching. Smallville fans will remember Glover as the only person on that train wreck who seemed to know how much dumb fun a truly over-the-top genre actor can have when he’s not worried about silly little things like “restraint.” He applied that same hammy glee to Brimstone, appearing throughout every episode—like an evil Al from Quantum Leap—to taunt, goad, and, very rarely, provide Stone with some help. Brimstone’s Devil got all the best one-liners and jokes, but Glover’s consistently amused performance never lost that all-important edge of menace, reminding viewers that, chummy tone aside, the series’ true villain was never far from reach.
Tim Curry in the 1985 fantasy film Legend is the only Satan I’ll hail. Credited as Darkness, Curry does some of his best character work in this underrated film that also stars a young Tom Cruise post-Risky Business and Mia Sara pre-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Darkness is pure evil—booming voice, huge horns, and blind ambition included—and Curry delivers each line with such a menacing tone. Even his laugh is enough to evoke terror, as it’s both creepy and cacophonous. As a night owl, I can get behind his cause, too, which is to create eternal night by destroying the last unicorn. Every great ambition requires a sacrifice. Besides, our copy desk once tried to convince me that unicorn meat would taste good, so there’s a silver lining here.
At the risk of giving a very 40-year-old-dad answer, when it comes to exemplars of ultimate evil, it’s tough to beat Mr. Scratch, the Antichrist in The Devil And Daniel Webster, even if you’re the titular great legal mind himself. The story of an ambitious man who sells his soul to the devil, then tries to get it back through canny legal maneuvering, has become a beloved piece of Americana thanks in no small part to Walter Huston’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the devil as a charming rascal whose evil and cunning ultimately prove no match for Webster’s persuasive arguments and the rightness of the American way, especially where the legal system is considered. In The Devil And Daniel Webster, not even the devil can game the American legal system, but he sure does give it a dishonest try.
Honestly, there aren’t a lot of bad Satans out there that I can think of. I think it’s one of those rare characters who’s been so well established that you really have the freedom to do whatever you want with your take on him without confusing people about the character’s essential nature. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I could truly only bring one Satan with me to a desert island, it’d be Señor Diablo, a.k.a. Mr. Satan, from Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. For starters, his look is perfect: great horns and a sweet cape, of course, but it’s the sultry shadow-laden eyelids that really sell this Satan. They give him a permanent air of sassy condescension, which makes him wonderfully petty. But what I really love about him is that he’s the ultimate straight-talker, almost the only one Johnny ever encounters. I’m not knocking any of the deceitful Satans out there, but I think those Satans tend to exist in (under?) worlds where good still has a chance. It’s refreshingly cynical to find one whose reality is already so messed up, he doesn’t even need to go around tricking the hero of the story. Plus, Señor Diablo’s hell is my ultimate nightmare: You just live life all over again as your private neuroses and insecurities grow and intensify, forever and ever and ever.
A lot of movies feature a fun twist on the devil character, but my favorite depiction is more traditional: Emil Jannings in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 adaptation of Faust. Not technically Satan but certainly a devil, Jannings’ Mephisto seethes insidious vibes as he lures Faust toward the dark side and ruins his world. It’s a great big performance, as the prestigious German actor takes on different demonic guises and modes. Murnau complements Jannings’ presence with moody German expressionist shadows and lots of impressive in-camera effects. We watch the demon fly, change forms, and drape himself over Faust’s entire town as he spreads his horrible evil (these memorable images helped inspire the “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence in Fantasia). Though he later won the first Oscar for Best Actor, Jannings’ career ended early due to his prominent roles in Nazi propaganda films. How’s that for selling one’s soul to the devil?