The Devil has been a prominent part of film since its inception, but the depiction of Lucifer has changed with the times to reflect humanity’s vices. Let’s look at how Lucifer has transitioned from the big-horned behemoth into the shifting shape of a man he is today. (In the interest of time and space, we’re sticking to literal personifications of the Devil.)
One of the earliest cinematic interpretations of the Devil was in the 1922 Swedish film Haxan, a look at the sinful lives of witches and devil worshippers. Described as a trickster, seducer and more in Haxan, the Devil in silent features manifests the way many who read the Bible would imagine him: cloven hooves, horned and terrifying, yet able to enthrall wayward woman. Haxan’s intention was to “educate” audiences on the horrors of witchcraft and living an unclean life while simultaneously delighting them with forbidden and frightening thrills.
The majority of Lucifer appearances are derivations on Goethe’s Faust narrative, and the 1926 German adaptation of Faust sets up the premise for a future generation of Devil-centric narratives. The Devil of Faust is frightening in a manner similar to Haxan, but where Haxan’s Devil is a jack-of-all-trades with little personality, the Devil of Faust is calculating. He tricks the young man into selling his soul without specifications on what that means. Where Haxan is about the temptations and weaknesses of humanity, Faust shows our ability to jump on material possessions without looking at the long-term ramifications. However, this is often hard to convey with nothing but intertitles to be read on-screen, hence the reliance on terrifying imagery to illustrate the frightening nature of the Devil himself. Though WWI had ended nearly a decade before the release of Faust, it was the first attempt to connect the Devil as instigator of war and vice.
Beezlebub took the 1930s off before coming back with a vengeance in the ‘40s with four features. It’s unsurprising that Hollywood took hold of the Devil during this time, as the U.S., already mired in the aftermath of the Great Depression, would find itself drawn into WWII and the Devil made a convenient scapegoat as the sole villain behind all of life’s evils. Released the same year as The Grapes of Wrath, the Capra-esque The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) presents our first look at a Lucifer who is sprightly, tricky, and, dare we say, charming? Walter Huston’s enigmatic Mr. Scratch presents the typical Faustian bargain to a struggling New Hampshire man named Jabez Stone (James Craig), with the stakes being Stone’s soul. The distinction lies in the fact that Stone isn’t the protagonist — Congressman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) is.
The morally upright politician is Mr. Scratch’s ultimate get, and in a move reminiscent of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), it is up to Webster — and by proxy the U.S. government — to help the common man, in this case Stone. Stone’s desire for material possessions and a quick fix for his poverty flies in the face of the Works Progress Administration that popped up after the Depression. For Stone, it is only through relying on things like the WPA — not as a quick fix, but a means of putting in hard work — that he’ll succeed. Mr. Scratch isn’t violent like the Devil in Haxan, but practical and rational. The final showdown for Stone’s soul involves Mr. Scratch and Webster putting the common man on trial with a jury of the most evil men who, for some reason, think Webster makes a convincing argument for the good of humanity. As the ‘40s went on, the Devil continued to be presented as a rational man who followed the rules and laws of man. He could bend the rules so far, but remained bound to them.
A man of law fighting against the Devil would pop up later in the decade with Alias Nick Beal (1949) and 1946’s Angel on My Shoulder. Even in a frothy romantic drama like 1943’s Heaven Can Wait, Laird Cregar’s Devil is a honey-voiced teddy bear who only wants the worst of the worst, and that’s not protagonist Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche). When Van Cleve demands a place in Hell for his deeds, it is the Devil who declares Van Cleve isn’t that bad, reuniting the man with his wife. In each case, the Devil remains a man with ethics that, while presented as bad, aren’t malicious. Each iteration of the character presents threatening situations and circumstances, but the Devils aren’t threatening themselves — gone are the cloven hooves and horns in favor of sharp suits.
The Devil remained a pragmatic figure in the ‘50s. In The Story of Mankind (1957), Vincent Price — also playing a character named Mr. Scratch — literally charts the course of human history in order to determine whether humanity is on the road to destruction or not. Where The Devil and Daniel Webster’s trial for mankind presented a verdict that hadn’t been determined yet — in 1941 there was no indication how long the war would last or its impact — The Story of Mankind posits man’s role in the creation of nuclear power. Coming just 12 years after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and coming alongside the growing Cold War and space race, The Story of Mankind uses the Devil as nothing more than a figurehead. Gone is the literal manifestation of our own evil in favor of influence. Price’s Scratch is indifferent to humanity, but happy for mass destruction. The Devil didn’t make us do it, but he was giving us a friendly nudge.
The Story of Mankind is also the film to posit a Devil figure free of any religious denomination. Though the previous films all avoid the word God and the Devil — the use of trials in Daniel Webster and The Story of Mankind negate religion in favor of law — The Story of Mankind takes the Devil’s dominion away from him. He has no real power, nor place in the world. He’s a man without a country.
Removing the Devil from a hellish plane is continued in 1958’s Damn Yankees, where a middle-aged baseball fan makes a Faustian bargain with Ray Walston’s Mr. Applegate. Unlike the previous takes on Faust, materialism isn’t the goal, but youth and the ability to rectify past mistakes. Mr. Applegate isn’t a rational man of law and order but a gambler. And unlike previous films where a trial of impartial observers saves mankind, it is the man who sold his soul in the first place, protagonist Joe Boyd, who saves himself with an “escape clause.” In a decade fraught with consumerism, man finally becomes an active participant in the fight against the Devil.
As the zeitgeist changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the deeds of man were perceived as more frightening than anything the Devil could cook up, leading to a lack of devilish films. Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen (1976) both focus on the Devil fathering an anti-Christ, a hybrid of human and Devil. The Devil doesn’t appear in these films directly, but acts as an absentee father impregnating women and leaving them with the fallout. The American family itself was perceived as under attack. With the generation gap leaving Baby Boomer parents to question their children’s tastes, it was easy to believe that their children were spawned, or at least corrupted, by the Devil himself.
The outlier is 1967’s Bedazzled, a British comedy where the Devil (Peter Cook) gives a shy man (Dudley Moore) seven wishes, only to put a wrench in each wish due to semantics. Unlike the ‘60s take on the Devil in the U.S., where he’s unseen but witnessed in future generations through childbirth, Cook’s Lucifer, named George, hearkens back to the tricky Devils like Huston and Walston. The soul of Dudley Moore’s Stanley Moon is little more than a number in a bet with God to procure 100 billion souls. Lucifer toys with Moon, to frustrate him and simply because he can. And, as in Damn Yankees, Moon’s soul is spared by a technicality — in this case, George has made his quota and decides to spare Moon … again, because he can. God and the Devil are both presented as apathetic tyrants who equally abuse mankind for their own selfish whims. Bedazzled’s 2000 remake gives audiences a female devil, played by Elizabeth Hurley in all manner of fetishistic clothing. By this time, the Devil is bored by humans, picking a victim via computer program.
The Devil took new forms in the excessive ‘80s, where violence and sexuality worked in tandem to show the true horrors of the Devil’s work. Angel Heart (1987) sees the Devil take the form of Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), who’s desperate to lay claim to a lone soul, that of crooner Johnny Favorite. Set in 1955, the film’s gumshoe protagonist (Mickey Rourke) is drawn into a web of rape, incest, and murder with the Devil not doing much short of coming to collect. In this case, the Devil is little more than a negotiator who gets a contract signed and waits to collect payment. It is Favorite himself who commits all the film’s horrific crimes and being left to deal with the guilt on his conscience and an eternity in Hell.
On the other hand, 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick puts women at the center of an encounter with the Devil, here played by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s Daryl van Horne personifies the ‘80s male: smarminess, misogyny, and dominance. He lives to excess and is hard to separate from Nicholson’s offscreen persona at the time. Unlike Angel Heart, though, the film’s trio of women end up besting the Devil at his own game, dominating him and putting him in his place, a slap in the face to the backlash against ‘70s feminism.
The ‘90s Satan further revels in violence, taking a backseat to let man usher in his own destruction. In 1992’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Needful Things, Max von Sydow’s Leland Gaunt acts as an instigator, a Twilight Zone-esque villain who watches over a small town as it destroys itself through his needling. His entire purpose is to illustrate what the greed of the ‘80s can do to small-town America if it allows itself to be consumed by “things,” either of nostalgic value or monetary. This is a concept mimicked in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate, where Al Pacino’s John Milton — a meta reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost — is the ultimate capitalist. The Devil has taken over New York via corporate interests, hoping that his son (Keanu Reeves) will inherit his empire. Outside of being one of the few self-aware personifications of Satan, where he directly comments on his own historical significance and perceived bad reputation, The Devil’s Advocate pokes at the long line of generational “devils” who have created a wage gap dividing and destroying humanity with money.
The Prophecy (1995) is one of the few ‘90s outliers that retains Satan’s need for dominance of humanity in a literal war between angels and devils. Here played by Viggo Mortensen, the Devil remains an opportunist, but money and other earthly things don’t factor into his worldview. He’s profiting from a disagreement among the angels in Heaven, and humanity is little more than a nuisance to him. In fact, the film’s climax puts the deus ex machina in his hands, forcing him to “save” the Earth to prevent humanity from stealing his thunder as the creators of ultimate suffering. This is a move similar to Lucifer in 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), and Peter Stormare’s Satan in the 2004 film Constantine. These Satans are isolated, only drawn into the features because of man’s weakness. Later on they become little more than plot devices, keeping humanity protected to keep their own existence (and the narrative) going.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) is one of the rare films to show the Biblical incarnation of the Devil, here played by Rosalinda Celentano. The androgynous personification of Satan tempts Jesus (Jim Caviezel) and witnesses his crucifixion. Passion of the Christ doesn’t aim for metaphor but a literal translation of the Devil in Christianity. Where the Devil isolates himself in film, The Passion of the Christ plays towards Christians specifically.
Nowadays the Devil is a background character, dispensing minions to do his bidding as he waits behind the scenes. Films like Drive Angry (2011), This is the End (2013), and The Witch (2016) present the Devil as an unseen central figure, returning him to the ‘60s where he was content to play with mortals without engaging directly. Maybe this is because religion is in flux or because the evil that men do has, once again, become more horrific than anything the devil could conjure up.
Kristen Lopez lives in Sacramento, just down the road from Hell.