“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.”
-Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects (1995)
He goes by many names: Satan, Morningstar, Lucifer, Old Scratch, Beelzebub. He's a man of wealth and taste, according to the song. He has horns, or cloven hooves, or a tail—or perhaps he wears Armani and carries a briefcase instead of a pitchfork.
No matter what he looks like, he's always bad news. Charming and tempting, he’s the sort of guy who's happy to help you out, but for a price—and it's always a steep one. The Devil does not accept credit, and there is no layaway plan.
He's been the Big Bad for thousands of years; the end all and be all of immoral, you could say. You can't get much worse than the root of all evil. So, naturally, he's been a big favorite when it comes to impressive villains for heroes to overcome.
But not all Satans are equal. A lot of things have to come together to make a great Devil: you have to cast the right actor, you have to style them well, and you have to give them a meaty script to chew, just for starters.
Here are a few of the most memorable:
Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen, The Prophecy)
This movie is far from perfect, but it does do some things right. Christopher Walken's turn as the deranged angel Gabriel is just as weird and creepy as you'd expect, but the real scene-stealer has only a few minutes of screen time—a pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer.
He appears just as hero Thomas Dagget (Elias Koteas) has a moment of doubt. The pair is in a barren, southwestern desert amidst clay pueblos—Dagget in jeans and a button-down shirt, while the long-haired Lucifer wears a shabby, black suit.
Dagget is desperate to save a little girl from the rampaging Gabriel (Walken)— perhaps desperate enough to strike a deal with Lucifer, who delights in tormenting the cop who once tried to become a priest.
“Little Tommy Dagget,” he croons in his ear. “How I loved listening to your sweet prayers every night. And then you'd jump in your bed, so afraid I was under there. And I was!”
It's the gleeful air that makes him so terrible. Later, when he appears to Virginia Madsen's Katherine, he plucks away the petals of a flower in a parody of childhood innocence before eating the seed pod with a nasty crunch. He may look like a man, but he's something far more animal and monstrous. His disdain for the world, mankind, and God bleeds through even as he sings a verse from a country song.
“While Heaven may be closed,” he tells Katherine, “I am always open, even on Christmas.”
It's one of the most memorable portrayals of Mephistopheles thanks to Mortensen's chilling performance; the fact that Lucifer, by killing Gabriel, is technically the real hero of the picture doesn't diminish how evil or creepy he is. Everything he did was for his own ends—don't mistake him for a good guy just because he saved a little girl from a tortuous death.
Satan (Peter Stormare, Constantine)
Boy, do I love Peter Stormare. The guy's played just about every nationality and a wide variety of crazy, weird, and violent psychos. And his 3rd act appearance as Satan in the 2005 Constantine is just as good as you'd come to expect from him.
Paranormal detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has to stop the misguided angel Gabriel—funny how often Gabriel goes astray in these movies—before they bring the Anti-Christ into the world. Out of options, he cuts his own wrists, knowing full well that he's already been labeled a suicide (a mortal sin that bars him from ever going to Heaven) and that his soul “is the only one Satan would ever come topside to personally collect.”
The Devil (Stormare) appears just in the nick of time, which promptly freezes, to allow for some long-awaited gloating. With his white suit and bare feet dripping hot tar, he's a striking contrast to Constantine, who's slumped against the wall dressed in undertaker's black.
This Satan speaks in a hoarse, high pitched hiss of a whisper, like a snake on the verge of striking, and giggles when he claps his hands with malicious glee. His Satan is a boy who enjoys pulling the wings off flies—a bully who refuses to be thwarted.
Once again, the Devil ends up saving the day, and once again, it's clear he did it only because he wanted to. It was pure luck that both Constantine and Satan wanted to keep the son from usurping the father, and next time the detective can't rely on hellish intervention at the midnight hour.
John Milton (Al Pacino, The Devil's Advocate)
Here's another film where Keanu Reeves finds himself making a deal with Azazel, though in this one, the devil he knows goes by the name of John Milton (wonder how the actual author of Paradise Lost would feel about that?).
Devil's Advocate is a classic story of temptation, where Milton (Al Pacino—how perfect is that casting?) offers the young lawyer Kevin Lomax (Reeves) everything he's ever wanted on a silver platter. Of course, we know better, and assume he must want his soul in return.
But there's a twist that I shan't spoil here; what I will say is that Pacino's suited, sophisticated Milton is exactly what you'd expect a modern Satan to be. He'd live in a penthouse suite and drink the best champagne. He'd have great connections and throw incredible parties.
He'd be Jay Gatsby with less baggage and no regrets, basically, and Pacino really sells it. And when, at the climax, his more monstrous side is revealed, he sells that just as convincingly. That's a man who puts angry eyebrows to good effect.
Darkness (Tim Curry, Legend)
Before you get up in arms and rush to comment that this character shouldn't be included on this list—yes, I'm fully aware that Darkness isn't actually Satan. He's the son of Satan, so technically that makes him an Anti-Christ figure.
But come on! Look at this dude! Of all of the devils to appear on-screen, he's easily the coolest and most traditional-looking one, with his massive horns (which weighed nearly 30 pounds and had to be built around Curry's head with huge shoulder supports), hooves, and hellfire red skin.
When you pair all of that with Curry's incredible voice, is it any wonder a lot of girls (I confess nothing) were more than a little confused by this film? I mean, how are we supposed to root for a unibrowed Tom Cruise in chainmail short-shorts when you've got Tim Curry strutting around with that booming laugh and billowing black cape? I understood Princess Lily's (Mia Sara) dilemma is all I'm saying.
Satan (Elizabeth Hurley, Bedazzled)
On the silver screen, angels and demons usually look like humans. But they're mystical, enigmatic creatures with powers beyond human comprehension—so why should they have to be one gender or another? Even though Satan is traditionally given a beard and a deep, raspy voice, why can't the most infamous fallen angel look like a supermodel?
So Hurley's take on Sammael makes the list because she looks really good in red leather—and because this shouldn't be a complete sausage party.
Bedazzled is hardly a cinematic classic, but it's a fun, silly take on the classic Faust story. Who says selling your soul always has to be doom and gloom? Brendan Fraser's ridiculous hamming as the luckless Elliot makes Hurley's Satan even cooler and more suave in comparison. She spends the entire film playing him like a golden fiddle and proving the old adage “be careful what you wish for” with truly devilish aplomb.
And if Lucifer really did look like a British model, you know she would absolutely meet her yearly quota for desperate horn-dog souls.
Whether a he or a she, a monster or a slick businessman, Lucifer is always a tricky customer to tango with. A misstep can cost a life, a soul, or the world itself. Sometimes, the Devil offers a helping hand when the chips are down, but the hero can't mistake him for an ally—he'll always collect his due in the end. And as long as there are stories of good versus evil, he'll be a favorite go-to baddie.
After all, there's a reason why entire religions fear him.
Did your favorite on-screen Devil make the list? Who's you favorite Father of Lies?
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.