Soon after finishing his film ”Viridiana” (1961), a film about a peculiar approach to the struggle to maintain the religiously regimented life of a nun contrasted with the possibility of a carnival world in upside down state (just like a feast of beggars), director Luis Buñuel said he would adapt the novel ”Là-bas” (1891) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (the title was translated sometimes as “The Damned”, or as ”Down There”).
In Huysmans’ book, there is a bifurcated path: in one way, the Satanism vogue in France in the late 19th century and a writer’s attempt to write the biography of Gilles de Rais, the famous French nobleman who fought alongside Joan of Arc before raping and massacring hundreds of children in alchemy experiments aimed to turn base metal into gold.
The inherent complexity of “Là-bas” is not the reason of its notoriety – at the time and today – but rather its detailed description of a black mass that occurs in the narrative climax, which attracted readers whose curiosity was always easily aroused by the macabre.
The adaptation of “Là-bas”, written by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, closely follows the plot of Huysmans’ novel and includes a memorable cinematographical reading of the scene where the black mass becomes the main character.
Unfortunately, the film was never realized. Despite the initial enthusiasm witnessed by the co-writer Carrière, the Spanish director eventually abandoned the project, choosing instead to film ”Cet obscur objet du désir” (1977).
This film, which was probably the clearest and most direct record about Satanism and diabolism in cinema history, was sadly never realized, and only the excellent script remains.
The causes for the Buñuel’s final decision – to give up on filming a novel that fascinated and obsessed him since his adolescence – were many, but one of them (reported by Carrière) is related to Buñuel’s superstitions. Between the humorous and the superstitious, Buñuel said it was better to abandon the project after a number of health problems in his stomach, something that should probably be blamed on Satan.
The history and many anecdotes of ”Là-bas”, the Buñuel diabolical film that never existed, could be seen as a fable illustrating the Devil’s central position in film history, with immense popularity and tremendous influence.
The enormous amount of films that represented, discussed, questioned, voiced or evoked Satan, throughout the history of cinema, advances the fields of films that were made, but whose potential remains materialized in rumors, scripts, and ideas.
Devil – or Satan, or Demon or one of its many names – has been a main character in films since before the existence of cinema, with Diableries in optical amusement and stereoscopic players in the 19th century, as we see in “Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell”, the exceptional book written by Brian May, Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming.
From the fantastic visions of the diabolic by Georges Méliès and Second Chomón, to the technological complexity of special effects films with exorcisms and possessions, our list is somewhat partial and limited like any other with the same theme.
But this list’s focus is this: the many unique and complex approaches to diabolism through his most recurrent themes, which includes the covenant, the group of adherents, the Byzantine discussions on the Devil and Evil, the evocation, the possession, the image of the demonic figure, the science exorcisms, the delights and horrors of hell.
20. The Ninth Gate (1999, Roman Polanski)
Roman Polanski’s deep concern about the variations of human perversity is a known fact, and this central obsessional axis of themes unfolds itself constantly and from different angles in his films. With such interest, it is no coincidence that conceptions related to the Devil are designed in several of Polanski’s films and we have at least two of them on this list.
In “The Ninth Gate”, the focus is the journey of book merchant Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) in his search for the book ”Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows” by 17th century author Aristide Torchia, who was burned by the Inquisition precisely because of this book.
Legends about Torchia’s book say that it was written with the Devil’s help (or hand) and the book’s illustrations would contain the secret key to obtaining all the graces of the Devil, even immortality. Corso’s journey – seeking to authenticate the remaining copies of the book, identifying which are true and which are fakes – leads to all sorts of supernatural conspiracies and evil cults.
This is another film about the chosen one by the Devil and their strange destiny, but from a different perspective. The benefits offered are quite attractive, but the Devil, active and intelligent, chooses carefully with his (or perhaps her) true followers.
19. Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier)
In the early days of Christianity, agnostics proposed an interesting variation on the Creation narrative. The world and all its beings were not the Almighty Creator’s (God) work, but rather a contraption designed by a god that is mad, cruel, proud, blind and unknown.
Therefore, our world and our reality would be – to the agnostics – a gigantic and futile illusory experience where all nature (including humanity) becomes something terrible and even demonic. This view probably influenced the original opposition to the storyline developed by Lars von Trier in his controversial film ”Antichrist”.
The general idea of the film’s plot seems to have been borrowed from the Nicholas Roeg film “Don’t Look Now” (1983), where a couple, identified only as “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg), moves away from home to treat the grief they’re experiencing after the death of their only child.
This is a vacation for therapeutic reasons; a search for comfort and relief within the nature. However, the couple finds something quite different from what they sought out.
Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography has both subtle and harsh contrasts – as per usual in von Trier’s films – and it helps create a symphonic progress for each “chapter” of the film. It remains a powerful poetic allegory about the paradoxes between desire and power, male and female, humanity and the uneasy bosom of Nature.
18. Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Carl Theodor Dreyer was a director particularly obsessed with problems of faith, forgiveness, damnation, and the shadows between good and evil.
Thus, his third film conducted in 1921 – whose plot seems to take its influence from the moralist Faustian novel ”The Sorrows of Satan” (1895) by Marie Corelli – presents a Satan that looks like the creature from Milton’s ”Paradise Lost” (1667), condemned by God to a hard and perhaps unjust punishment, a veritable curse.
And the Devil’s curse is precisely to seduce mankind, although the salvation would be the resistance of a human soul to the seductive evil propagated by the Devil. So we follow Satan (Helge Nisse) in his saga, covering four episodes of human history in search of the soul that refuses its influence.
In the first episode, Satan is disguised as a Pharisee, seducing Judas to betray Jesus. In the second episode, set in 16th century Spain, Satan embodies the Grand Inquisitor, which drives the monk Don Fernandez to commit a heinous crime.
The French Revolution is the setting of the third episode and Satan appears as a Jacobin leader who convinces a young man to betray his master, a noble, destroying a plan that could save Queen Marie Antoinette from death by the guillotine.
In the last episode, Satan is a former monk who leads a group of Red Army soldiers during the Finnish Civil War in 1918. The demon tries to force a telegraph operator to help in an ambush against government forces. The girl, however, prefers to commit suicide rather than face the possibility of treason.
The film is a colorful, spellbound and Manichean panel about evil in human history, displacing the usual evil role of the Satan, who became the helpless witness of the evil inspired by himself. However, it cannot be the only defendant for this evil because he is a mirror of the human soul’s deep recesses, full of turbulent desires and invincible guilt.
17. Prince of Darkness (1987, John Carpenter)
John Carpenter’s ”Prince of Darkness” works on the question of the Devil at a level that approaches science fiction. In the basement of an abandoned church in Los Angeles, there is a strange and swirling green substance, whose real nature is totally unknown.
A priest (Donald Pleasence) invites Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong) and his students to decipher the secret of the substance, and the appalling conclusion is that this liquid would be the physical and fluid shape of Satan.
A mix of scientific speculation and apocalyptic horror, this film recreates the interpretation that scientism (especially in the 19th century) tried to provide for the Devil and for evil; the transformation of an abstract, conceptual and metaphysical entity in a real element, and the materialization of evil not only as a conduit or a question concerning ethics, but as a real substance to be manipulated by the use of formulas and laboratorial tasks.
These dreams of scientism and its subsequent failure, transformed into narrative by an author like H. P. Lovecraft, provide a special charm for “Prince of Darkness”.
16. L’hypothèse du tableau volé (1978, Raoul Ruiz)
In 1965, French writer and philosopher Pierre Klossowski released ”Baphomet”, a nonlinear and radically experimental novel about the idol that was believed to be worshiped by the Knights Templar. The idol was mentioned during the session of tortures in the Inquisition, which resulted in the order’s extinction on charges of heresy and sodomy in 1307.
The novel revolves around this mysterious idol, initially a human head with a long beard that changes and acquires new forms and characteristics and animalistic shapes, becoming Satanism’s most universal image. The philosophical and aesthetic context developed in “Baphomet” was the inspiration for Chilean director Raoul Ruiz, who created the intricate “L’hypothèse du tableau volé” (1978), which is less of an adaptation and more of a complex reading, divided into multiple cryptic directions.
The film is almost entirely filmed in a room, where a collector examines in detail the paintings of an obscure disciple of Gérôme, named Frédéric Tonnerre; one of the paintings was stolen. Trying to explain the possible connections between the remaining pictures, the collector (and the director) dramatizes each frame, providing complicated explanations for various historical puzzles.
With extraordinary photographs by Sacha Vierny, who managed to capture life from inanimate frames through unusual angles, this is an exhilarating tour de force about the conspiracies and the Devil and how the evil elements emerge uncertainly, dubious, hidden in human history.
15. Riget (1994, Lars von Trier)
The film “Antichrist” was not the first venture by Lars von Trier into hellish territory. The “Riget” (in English, “The Kingdom”) series was created by von Trier in 1994 for the Danish channel DR, with episodes directed by Trier and Morten Arnfred. “Riget II”, its continuation, was released in 1997 and a third film was planned, but the death of some of the actors playing the main characters prevented this possibility.
The series shows the origins and developments of an absolute evil that seems embedded in the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, following a series of investigations and discoveries made by Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a psychic.
While doctors participate in rituals and games between the bizarre and the bloody, a choir (in the style of an ancient Greek tragedy) consisting of a couple of young people with Down syndrome washing dishes comment on the terrors that affect all who are cursed in the hospital where they work.
Among the dilemmas and human suffering comes one of the most amazing pictures the Devil ever held in the cinema: one of the nurses gives birth to an adult child, the son of Satan, who actually has a good heart and a suffering body, a mimicry of Jesus Christ.
Later recovered by Stephen King in the miniseries “Kingdom Hospital” (2004), von Trier’s irony and black humor in “Riget” attacks the popular medical series on television. Regardless, the incredible image of a Devil situated on a spiritual plane of suffering similar to our misunderstanding is a great innovation, using an arsenal of horror movie effects to build a metaphysical nightmare worthy of Ingmar Bergman.