Satanic Cinema

I am slowly adding to my collection of bibliographical materials for my research project that looks at how film and television have influenced popular culture's understanding of Wicca, Paganism, and Western esotericism. Two of the books I worked through recently touch on the figure of Satan, and while the books have differing approaches they compliment each other in their analysis of Satan who has been a very busy and popular figure on the large and small screens.

The first book I picked up is by Nilolas Schreck, The Satanic Screen: An Illustrated Guide to the Devil in Cinema (Creation Books, 2001). Schreck is the husband of Zeena Schreck, one of the daughters of the late Anton LaVey, founder of the infamous Church of Satan in San Francisco and creator of the LaVeyan Satanism tradition. Given Shreck's connection to the LaVey family, and his continuing involvement in satanist philosophy and practice, Schreck brings his experience and interests to bear in his consideration of various films that include the figure of Satan.

Schreck describes the criteria for selecting the various films he treats in this volume:

"Certainly, I have allowed my own eclectic tastes to decide which episodes in this 104-year journey should be emphasized. It would require an encyclpedia to chronicle every diabolical production, and limitations of space simply forbid listing them all. As I'm convinced that the homogenized sterily of 1980s and 1990s culture marked a dismal nadir, the reader will notice that I've been far less exhaustive in covering that aesthetically void era. Whenever possible, I've tried to illuminate the darker, more obscure corners of the satanic cinema. Consequently, influential but forgotten early figures like George Melies, Hanns Heinz Ewers, and Hans Poelzig have been afforded more spae than some well-known contemporary players. I make no apologies for my admitted prejudice against big-budget Hollywooden product in favour of less-publicized independent productions."

The second volume that I recently reviewed is Charles P. Mitchell, The Devil on Screen: Feature Films Worldwide, 1913 through 2000 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000). Mitchell's book is very different from Schreck's in his approach. He lectures and studies film as a critic, and is the author of other treatments on cinema such as Screen Sirens Scream!: Interviews with 20 Actresses From Science Fiction, Horror, Film Noir and Mystery Movies, 1930s to 1960s (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000). It is no surprise then that his interests and criteria are different than Schreck's in choosing which films to include. For Mitchell, the Devil must appear in the film "and be played by a recognizable person," the film must be feature length, the character must genuinely be considered the Devil in the film's portrayal, adult films are excluded, and the film must still exist and be accessible by viewers.

Mitchell's volume is also accompanied by two helpful appendices, the first listing "Lost, Obscure, and Arcane Devil Films," and the second comprising a list of "Television Devils." The latter was of interest to me in noting the popularity of Satan on television in addition to film, and I was surprised to see the large number of references to The Twilight Zone series, which included the episode "The Howling Man" starring John Carradine and Robin Hughes, which Mitchell describes as "perhaps the best single television episode featuring the Devil."

A reading of these two books together was very helpful in consideration of the subject matter. The differing tastes, approaches, and criteria for film treatment made for a much broader and more interesting collection of films for consideration. But even with their differing approaches to this topic both volumes did have some overlap as they authors gave special consideration to films they highly appreciated. Both authors highly valued The Devil Rides Out (1968), directed by Terence Fisher and produced by Hammer Films. Both discuss the origins of this film in actor Christopher Lee who approached author Dennis Wheatley about transforming one of his novels about black magic onto the silver screen. For Schreck, this film is "one of the most entertaining treatments of Satanism on screen," and for Mitchell this film "remains one of Hammer's most remarkable and impressive efforts, one that easily could have been developed into a successful new series."

The second film that both authors view with high esteem, and spend a good amount of space discussing, is The Ninth Gate (1999), directed by Roman Polanski and starring Johnny Depp and Frank Langella. This film did not due well at the box office, and it is usually panned by critics and average moviegoers alike, but Mitchell suggests that "[p]art of the reason is that it requires genuine concentration. To penetrate the actual story is a challenging a puzzle as the one faced by the protagonist in the film." Both authors note that the figure of Satan is portrayed not as an evil and fallen being in keeping with the Christian tradition, but rather as an entity attempting to bring enlightenment. Interestingly, Mitchell notes that the film is open to a variety of interpretations, and the one that the author suggests means that I will have to revisit the film to watch it more closely as I consider differing interpretive possibilities. Mitchell is so impressed with this film and the work of Polanski as its director that he describes as "that of a master at the height of his creativity," that in his opinion "this film may even be regarded as the pinnacle of his career."

While readers may consider the figure of Satan in cinema a macabre topic, it nevertheless is a significant one that has been focus of a number of films and television programs (not to mention literature). These volumes provide an interesting introduction to the topic as they compliment each other in a survey and analysis of the Devil in the movies.

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There are 5 Comments to "Satanic Cinema"

  • Visigoth says:

    Do either of the books offer any metaphysical philosophy regarding Satan? Do they see Satan as a spiritual being or more of a title for the abstraction of evil?

    Do the books talk about the problem of evil and what evil actually is?

    I am thinking of renting The Ninth Gate. Sounds interesting.

  • Nicole says:

    hm. I found the Ninth Gate awfully anti-climactic.

    Anyway, I'd also recommend Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions and Media by Bill Ellis. He has a section on Hammer horror films and his intro deals with the controversy over that Harry Potter article in the Onion. It's a great cultural analysis.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Visigoth, neither of these books offer the authors's views on their interpretation of Satan. The books are not dealing with this metaphical topic. Schreck would have his views as informed by his particular satanic philosphy, but again, this is not the purpose or focus of his book or Mitchell's

    Nicole, thanks for your comments. I'd suggest you interact with both of these authors on their interpreatation of The Ninth Gate. The conclusion is not as anti-climactic as one might think. But your recommendation of Ellis' work is spot on. He does a wonderful job not only in touching on these areas, but also in addressing the folkloric aspects that lead to satanic panics as well.

  • [...] TheoFantastique: I appreciate your perspective on that film but this is where I would have to respectfully disagree. On my first screening of The Ninth GateI initially dismissed it, but upon subsequent viewings and reflection, I think it is a multi-layered, significant, and neglected horror film and piece of Polanski’s work in horror. While it may not include the ambiguities that Rosemary’s Baby does, the way unique way in which it treats the figure of Satan, and its incorporation of Western esotericism within the horror genre, make one of Polanski’s best films, and perhaps a horror film that rivals Rosemary’s Baby. For those interested in my discussion on this see my previous post on the topic of “Satanic Cinema.” [...]

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