The James Clayton Column: the Devil’s greatest tricks

With The Rite and Drive Angry 3D bringing infernal themes to the big screen, James looks back at Beelzebub’s enduring presence in pop culture…

The Usual Suspects tells us that “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Some trick. I see His Infernal Majesty everywhere. Who are these simple souls who are so gullible and easily convinced?

In The Rite, Anthony Hopkins’ character, Father Lucas, makes a similar suggestion about the nature of the Beast through an allegory about a burglar not leaving the lights on. Unless the robber is really incompetent or has a bizarre desire to bump up their victim’s electricity bills, Hopkins has a point.

Furtively operating in the shadows can be a very effective way of conducting evil schemes. It works for Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects and it works for the Devil when He (or She or It) is up against a world of wary religious folk and a mass army of defenders of the faith.

Even so, it’s hard to be infamous if you’re always out of plain sight and I’d say that constant secrecy doesn’t suit the Great Demon. It wants renown and glory. It wants song, dance and Satanic worship rituals with animal costumes and blood sacrifice. It wants to see its likeness on tattoos and hot sauce bottles and to have its name referenced by heavy metal bands.

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It’s thrilled to be played by Dave Grohl onscreen and challenged to a rock off by Tenacious D. The Beast thrives in the dark, but desires some noise, pyrotechnics and chaos for some interesting variety. If it is that allegorical burglar, it might not leave the lights on, but the least it’s going to do is leave a dead rat in the fridge and pee on your rug before pinching your family heirlooms.

If the Devil doesn’t want its existence known, then it wouldn’t possess people and do the sort of diabolical deeds depicted in The Rite, The Exorcist and The Omen, to name a select few cinematic studies. El Diablo wants to show off and say “Look what I can do!” and make people acknowledge the power of the Dark Side. Otherwise, the good (bad) name of Hell gets covered in dust and God gets top billing.

On the other hand (the right hand of God), pious devotees need the Devil to exist. How can you have a sense of ‘good’ if you don’t have a conception of ‘evil’? Theological debates rumble around the dilemma that dismissing the Devil as a fiction raises questions about God himself (or Herself or Itself) and that completely undermines all religious faith. With a clear enemy you can form a moral outlook, belief system and solid identity. Devout Christianity needs a Devil, so it can define itself.

And what would those whose lives revolve around casting out the Demon do if the Devil was made up? It’s a relevant question for authority exorcist figures like Father Lucas and Father Xavier (Ciarán Hinds) in The Rite.

It’s also worth noting how, in The Rite and The Exorcist, the doubting protagonists gripped by spiritual crisis, Michael Kovac (Colin O’Donoghue) and Father Karras (Jason Miller), respectively, secure their faith by dealing with cases of demonic possession. Perhaps, then, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the Christian world he needed to exist.

It’s always good to see the Devil remaining on prominent display at the cinema. Lately, Hell’s influence has been cast over Nicolas Cage releases Season Of The Witch and Drive Angry and, more profoundly, on Swedish director Mikael Håfström’s The Rite. Apparently omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and immortal, Satan is the ultimate screen villain by virtue of spiritual nature and thus has the edge over all movie monsters and megalomaniacs that you might care to configure as the enemy.

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No other entity could conjure up such unsettling dread, doubt and distress. The threat of other cinema baddies is significantly diminished when you consider that the Devil can take your soul and cast you into eternal damnation.

Alongside the immense fear, with satanic supernatural abilities there’s always plenty of opportunity for awesome spectacle in diabolically-tinged flicks. This was grasped way back in the pioneering days of cinema by the 1922 seminal Scandinavian silent film, Häxan, which offered up such shocking sights as graphic horror imagery, grotesque demons and witches’ Sabbath rituals.

The Devil’s trickery manifest on screen makes for marvellous motion picture visuals. Movies like Häxan and The Exorcist allow audiences to enjoy thrilling and visceral imagery, whilst also simultaneously ushering them through an unnerving experience of ultimate idealised evil.

William Friedkin’s 1973 movie probably remains the most disturbing devil flick and is a perfect case study in showing how the Dark Lord delivers excellent onscreen action. As subtle and quiet as The Exorcist is in its unravelling of epic horror, the special effects set pieces are the moments that linger most in the memory. Once you’ve observed Linda Blair’s Regan raving, levitating, upside-down spider walking and projectile vomiting pea soup, you’re never going to forget it. How could you not be astounded by the three-hundred-and-sixty degree full head swivel?

The Devil does, indeed, have some pretty impressive tricks in its repertoire, it seems, and The Rite is another cinematic showcase opportunity for His Infernal Majesty. You want affecting spectacle? Come see demonic possession and incredible displays of contorted bodies writhing in hysteria and coughing up rusty nails! Watch them speak unfamiliar foreign tongues and read minds to access unknown knowledge!

Come witness il Diavolo’s handiwork as he produces hallucinations, conjures up red-eyed mules of Hell and plagues of frogs! Be surprised as he performs impossible sleight of hand tricks on struggling priests and their petrified, afflicted patients!

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Altogether, it’s a fantastic supernatural magic show, serving the chilling depth and profound basis of The Rite with sequences of exhilarating power and twisted pleasure. (Because I love this violent, darkly paranormal stuff.)

The Devil does tremendous work in The Rite and also manages to inspire the most exhilarating and electrifying Anthony Hopkins performance since Silence Of The Lambs.

A great show is always guaranteed and Lucifer towers horns and shoulders over all other evildoers in pop culture. I say, salute the pervading influence of Satan when it soaks celluloid reels and celebrate the exhilarating spectacle, scariness and surer intellectual and spiritual understanding that it brings.

We need the Devil, and watching It on screen or challenging It to a rock-off is most often going to provide a righteous reminder of that and allow you to heroically confront evil. To quote the tagline of The Rite: “You can only defeat it when you believe.”

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.

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