The 8 Ball 10.15.13: The Top 8 Movie Demons
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 10.15.2013
From Pazuzu in The Exorcist and Al Pacino's John Milton in The Devil's Advocate to the Kandarian demon of The Evil Dead, the Cenobits in Hellraiser and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 demons in film!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 Movie Demons
Welcome back to the 8 Ball, film fans! Horror Month continues at 8 Ball Headquarters and this week we move from ghosts to demons. Film as a medium has always been home to creatures from Hell (or similar dark afterlife dimensions); America's Christian orientation has assured that demons are embedded firmly within our subconscious and are always good for a scare. And while certainly many demonic entities have failed to properly evoke fear or anything else particularly positive (dybbuk from The Unborn and Belial in Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, I'm looking at you both), there are no shortage of great tempters and plotters and things from the pits of Hell within cinematic history. This week we're going to take a look at the best of them to date.
Caveat: The only criteria for this list was that you had to be clearly defined as a demon. There is some bleedthrough and fuzziness between demon, ghost, random weird spirit and such, so I was looking for creatures very specifically noted to be demons (or devils). That left creatures like the red spirit in Insidious off the list. I also wanted ones that could be identified as a specific demon (or specific kind). If they're just "demons" then they aren't as distinctive and basically most of them didn't rank high enough to make the list. You get points for distinguishing your demons in my book.
When you think of demon-related movies, it's hard not to let The Evil Dead come to your mind right away. Sam Raimi's horror trilogy that ran through Army of Darkness (and this year's sorta-sequel-sorta remake as well) is beloved among horror fans and for very good reasons; it's guerilla filmmaking done right. And while the demonic force in the first film isn't given a specific name, we know from the tape that it is a Kandarian demon. What's more, it is very clearly defined in terms of its powers and where it comes from. It's impossible to deny how effective the entity is as a demonic force, making short work of poor Ash Williams' sister and group of friends through some appropriately vile methods. Cheryl's brutal tree experience would be bad enough but then the Force proceeds to possess the others and turn them against each other, forcing the remaining non-possessed to have to start dismembering their friends. The Kandarian is extremely effective in tormenting its victims (and ghoulishly creative at times too: again, tree incident) and when it's time for it to manifest in its "Rotten Applehead" form, as it has been colloquially called...well, it's pretty gruesomely bad-ass. The Kandarian may have lost a slight step in Army of Darkness (at least in ingenuity) when it decides to instead empower a whole army of Deadites, but certainly ratchets up the nastiness when it comes back in Evil Dead and no matter how you slice it, it remains one of the more memorable demonic forces in cinema.
#7: Lucifer - The Prophecy
This one may be problematic for some readers, as it is essentially a cameo or, if we're being generous, a supporting role. But even in a relatively short amount of screen time, Viggo Mortenson gives what is essentially what I consider to be the definitive portrayal of Lucifer on film. The Prophecy is a fantastic piece of horror that doesn't need to go incredibly grotesque or fantastical to evoke a sense of dread. One could actually make the argument that Christopher Walken's Gabriel is a demon of sort as he is an angel expelled from Heaven but Lucifer is the clear Lord of Hell in the film and there is no alliance between the two. By the time Lucifer does show up the film is approaching its climax; Virginia Madsen's Katherine is outside as the humans prepare to try to get the dark soul of the cannibalistic war criminal Colonel Hawthorne out of the young girl that he's residing inside. And then just like that Lucifer is there with one of his minions. Mortensen has said in interviews that he wanted to play the devil in a non-magnanimous way because, as he put it, "There is no real need to yell and scream and prance around. If you are in charge, you know you have it. You don't have to prove it." And that gave his Lucifer a certain level of grace that makes him incredibly charming. But then there are those moments--when he snarls at his minion, when he quite calmly tells Katherine "I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother's feces...or we can talk"--that leave absolutely no question what sort of monster he is. And the grace, the softly-spoken manner...it makes the monstrousness all the more effective. It's really the perfect mix of bestial and cultured that brings Mortenson's portrayal first and foremost into mind when I think of the devil.
#6: The Collector – Demon Knight
There are several varieties of demonic forces, but one of Hollywood's favorite over the past twenty to thirty years is that of the witty demon. Hollywood realized with the Nightmare on Elm Street series that audiences loved a villain who cracked wise and as a result we got no small number of snarky monsters from the various incarnations of the Devil and every version of The Joker to Hannibal Lector, the Gruber siblings and so on. One of the most fun examples of this trope is Billy Zane's Collector in Demon Knight. A creature from Hell, the Collector is sent to retrieve the Key held by Frank Brayker which is the last thing demons need in order to reclaim the universe. Zane plays him with a wonderful level of gusto and wit, having a grand old time in a way that almost makes Robert Englund jealous. Of course the nature of Tales from the Crypt's horror-comedy roots allowed them to have more fun than your average horror film would, and that makes his personification fit a little bit better than it might in more serious films. And yet, as much fun as he's having there is no doubting his malevolence and how ruthless he is. Similar to Lucifer and his soft-spoken demeanor, it is the Collector's sense of humor that helps make those evil moments REALLY evil. Of course in the end he gets outsmarted, but that's only because Jeryline managed to think on her feet. I'd have loved to see another film showing the Collector's past adventures, but the one we received was pretty fantastic.
#5: Hellboy - Hellboy
Not all demons are bad guys! And sure, Hellboy may be the only protagonist demon on this list but he certainly makes up for that by being incredibly bad-ass. Mike Mignola's demonic comic book hero was practically built for cinema and when Guillermo Del Toro got the opportunity to make such a film, audiences were understandably excited. Del Toro and Mignola agreed that Ron Perlman was perfect for the role as he was not only the spitting image of Hellboy (well, minus the red skin and horn nubs) but he had the right attitude needed. And they were dead right, as Perlman took the role and embodied it to such a degree that I daresay few comic book character portrayals have been quite as accurate as this one. In both Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army we see the titular character struggle to come to terms with being a demon that protects humanity from the very things that he finds more common ground with and it is Hellboy's humanity that comes forth which makes him so appealing. Perlman has great chemistry with the whole of the cast and he delivers in every cinematic sense--comedic, dramatic and action--to give us what is clearly the greatest demonic hero seen on-screen yet.
#4: Azazel - Fallen
I've always felt that Fallen is one of the more underrated films on Denzel Washington's resume. Critics seemed unsure of how to respond to the film when it opened in January of 1998 and audiences were swayed, preventing the film from being a real success. That's unfortunate, because what you have here is a very fun and stylish cat-and-mouse game where demonic possession is used as a tool to frame a very solid horror/thriller film around and the villain, Azazel, is a fantastic idea for a demonic entity. In the film Azazel is a demon who has the ability to transfer his lease on a particular body from one person to another with just a touch. When Washington's Detective John Hobbes puts a stop to the demon's most recent host in serial killer Edgar Reese Azazel decides to torment Hobbes, in particular because he is unable to possess Hobbes for whatever reason. The way that this film uses the body-jumping aspects were very well done and it allowed several different actors to be able to play the demon. Luckily all the actors were at the top of their game for this tricky role and they gave him a common persona that you could see aspects of in each of their portrayals. Director Gregory Hoblit does a fantastic job of building the tension regarding the character and Azazel is always kept as a serious threat throughout. I enjoy watching it every time I get in the right mood.
#3: John Milton - The Devil's Advocate
While Viggo's Lucifer is my idea of definitive portrayal of the devil, the fact that he's in a minor portion of the film means he isn't the highest-ranked devil. That spot goes to the amazing job done by Al Pacino in this gem of a flick. We filmgoers love giving Keanu Reeves crap for his one-note characters, particularly earlier in his career. But I thought he did a fairly good job in Taylor Hackford's horror-thriller in which he plays a crackshot lawyer who, unbeknownst to himself, is the son of the devil and by signing with a big-city law firm is "coming home." Even people who don't like Reeves' work as Kevin Lomax have to appreciate how much fun Pacino has as John Milton. Pacino plays it with a little wink and a smile; even before we know in the narrative that Pacino is Satan, he seems to be daring us to find out with his little sideways grins and pithy comments. Of course there's a level of humor in the idea that the ultimate lawyers on the planet are demons or demonically enhanced but when Pacino lets loose in this one it's a thrill to watch. And the best part of it is how in the end, even Kevin choosing his own death over creating the Antichrist doesn't work; Milton just zips things backward so he can start the whole process again. You've gotta appreciate the devil's patience and tenacity in that.
#2: The Cenobites - Hellraiser
Let's be clear here; we're talking about the Cenobites in the first two Hellraiser films. There were a few decent ones after that but a lot of very sketchy ones too (CD-head, anyone) and Pinhead, Butterball, Chatterbox and the unnamed female are the Dream Team. Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart provided a great horror story for Hollywood to latch onto and one of the most interesting parts was the Cenobites themselves, the demons who were created by Leviathan to tempt and torture humanity for all time. There's a lot to love about these creatures from a horror fan standpoint: their sadism, their backstories (though mostly not directly referenced in the film), their stylish fashion sense...okay, maybe not that, depending on how much you are into the S&M crowd. But what I love about this group is that they are a mirror to show how messed up humanity is. They don't go out and cause untold havoc; they want for mankind to come to them and then punish them for seeking out the forbidden. The cenobites created a new sensibility among demonic forces in film, combining the body horror of their visages with physical and sexual horror to create what is pretty much the ultimate package of evil. Pinhead is an icon of horror for a good reason, after all, and those reasons are why this quartet ranks at #2 for me.
#1: Pazuzu - The Exorcist
Obvious choice? Of course it is. But something being the "obvious choice" does not make it the wrong choice. The Exorcist set the bar for horror in 1973, a bar that in my not-so-humble opinion has yet to be reached. This is a film that was and still is terrifying, particularly because of Linda Blair's performance as Regan...or rather, as Pazuzu, the demon within. Blair would never live this film down and that's unfortunate because she is absolutely mind-blowing here. I love that William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty used an actual Sumerian demon for this; it's that kind of research that pays off in spades and Blair's portrayal amounts to far more than some shocking lines and gross special effects, though it is thoroughly fair to say that are few performances as shocking as hers in the history of cinema. Blair quite simply exudes evil here and she's completely chilling throughout the film. This is one of the few films that still unnerve me every time I watch it, no matter how many times I do and it frankly set the bar not only for horror films, but especially for demonic forces on film. It's safe to say it hasn't been equaled yet.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season:Season Five (1968) Episodes Watched: 633 Last Serial Completed:The Web of Fear - The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria return to London where they find the Great Intelligence and its robotic Yeti have overrun the London Underground railway system. With the help of a Colonel named Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, they move to stop the villain from taking over the world. Surviving Episodes Remaining: 20
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.