What the Devil Is Up To
The slick art of religious thrillers
By Grant Rosenberg

From Gadfly March/April 2001


Last September, it was reported that Pope John Paul II performed an unsuccessful, impromptu exorcism on a hysterical 19-year-old Italian girl at the Vatican. According to a interview with Reverend James LeBar, a priest who regularly performs them in New York, exorcisms often require the services of many priests over a succession of days. This raises an uncomfortable but unavoidable question among believers: If the Pope, of all people, can't solve the problem of satanic possession on the grounds of the Holy See itself, what is the hope for the rest of us?

It seems fair to say that there is a threshold of religious belief around the world. The vast majority of people believe in a higher power in one form or another, even in the idea of Satan. Yet many also become incredulous and even embarrassed by the idea that the Church is naive enough to think that the troubling behavior of some unfortunate, chemically-imbalanced people can be interpreted as the Lord of Darkness actually inhabiting souls, in this, the scientifically and medically advanced 21st Century. Some simply won't go that far in taking it all literally.

Except when it comes to making movies.

In the last two years, we've seen the release of half a dozen religious thrillers where the protagonist fights for his or her life against forces of evil. This conflict often requires the aid of the Church and, as with vampire movies, a combination of religious know-how, brute strength and occasional firepower. Films such as End of Days, The Ninth Gate, Stigmata, The Devil's Advocate, Bless the Child, Lost Souls and the re-release of The Exorcist all feature simplistic, sometimes fudged Biblical notions, with climaxes designed to thrill and titillate us until Good triumphs over Evil and we can all go home feeling better about this chaos we inhabit.

What has caused this trend? Is it that filmmakers, in the continuing attempt to top one another, have only the obvious, Ultimate Challenge of time immemorial remaining as fodder for thrillers?

There must be something else happening in the culture besides Hollywood's drive for dollars that keeps these films rolling out. None perform extraordinarily at the box office. Furthermore, there is that point of Hollywood liberals (Winona Ryder, Patricia Arquette and Kim Basinger—though not the conservative Arnold Schwarzenegger) making films that endorse a literal interpretation of the Bible, something usually not associated with the film industry. Are they just taking a paycheck or is it a personal spiritual journey, manifested professionally with these types of films?

In a piece entitled "Lucifer Rising," writer Carina Chocano tries to understand the upswing in films about the Devil. She has an opinion on where the answer won't be found. "Chestnuts about the popular fascination with questions of good and evil are of no use in explaining the trend," writes Chocano. "Goodness is no longer a goal for most, and the notion of Hell doesn't scare people quite as much after they've been audited by the IRS, lunched at the Hard Rock Cafe or lived in Los Angeles."

The Cinematic Struggles Themselves
Indeed, it seems that Beelzebub has lost his bite. From the comedies South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Bedazzled and Little Nicky and some of the thrillers, we can see how the Devil inspires many emotions—much of them tabloid, if not outright humorous. Even Darth Maul, in Phantom Menace with his nightmarish, satanic visage, never inspires the true horror that he should, particularly in comparison to Darth Vader. The Devil works both sides of the aisle, never in between. He can be funny or scary, but never pat, except for George Burns in Oh God, You Devil.

The first of the recent religious pop thrillers was 1997's Devil's Advocate. Trumping The Firm by having the evil law firm that the naive, young lawyer joins turn out to be The Evil Law Firm, the film actually gives Satan the name John Milton. Played by Al Pacino, he is, well, everything that Pacino is nowadays—the Dark Prince of Histrionics. Sure, he's quiet for a while, in his crisp suits and impeccable manner, but as soon as the jig is up, Pacino comes out to play. Keanu Reeves, as the young, cocky, merciless lawyer Kevin Lomax, hails from a small Florida town, with a quiet, church-going mother. Aside from the plot twisting and turning to arrive at a tidy full-circle answer to it all, the film conveys the ridiculously oversimplified idea that goodness lies in the countryside while, typically, New York City is the new Sodom. Comparisons to The Firm aside, it's actually Star Wars in the legal system. By the end, we have Luke vs. Vader, as Lomax learns that Milton is his father and wants him to join the Dark Side and rule for eternity. There's even a sexual tension with a woman who turns out to be his sister.

In Devil's Advocate, Lomax suffers for the sins of yuppies everywhere. In this new economy of "unparalleled prosperity," to quote Al Gore, those with upward mobility and increasing success look for affirmation that they have not lost their souls or scruples. Rather than rake the culture-at-large over the coals, which is implicit, this film looks at one couple, the Lomaxes (Kevin, along with his professional wife Maryann, played by Charlize Theron, who is shown to work the phones on Sunday, to her mother-in-law's moral chagrin), and their greed. But things get a bit complicated. As Charles Taylor put it in his review, "[the film] has a split personality: It starts out asking us to enjoy Reeves and Theron's sexed-up greediness and then tells us that they have to pay for the wages of their sins." This isn't limited to the protagonists, either. What would the film be, if not for the joy audiences get from watching Pacino ham it up? The difference between thrillers and humble dramas about Evil is the notion that here we are meant to enjoy the wickedness of the villain until we aren't meant to enjoy it anymore.

There is a saying that, in their lifetime, all actors must play Hamlet and Jesus, that it is a rite of passage. It would seem that Satan should be added to this list. Jack Nicholson in Witches of Eastwick, Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart with his measured words and fingernails, the off-centered, bug-eyed Rufus Sewell, Al Pacino, Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel have all taken their turn. The role is by definition larger than life, and if there is one direction that popular American film has trended toward, it's lack of subtlety. We seek out those who chew up scenery: how else can we explain the success of Jim Carrey? The films of his that are the least remunerative are those that feature a subdued Carrey. That's not what audiences pay to see. In addition to Ace Ventura, he is the Cable Guy, the Riddler and the Grinch—playful, Lucifer-like. This principle is not new, of course. It is, after all, what causes the prejudice of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences against actors and actresses who don't emote. It also explains the main source for Pacino's resurgence in popularity over the course of the last decade. In short, Satan's onscreen m.o. fits the bill.

Released toward the end of 1999, End of Days played the Y2K Armageddon scare to the hilt. A 20-year-old virgin has been groomed from birth to be the mother of Satan, who will be conceived at midnight on December 31, 1999. This film seems to come the closest to being anti-Catholic, what with its Vatican priests who want to kill the girl before she can give birth to the anti-Christ who will bring about the end of days. Lucifer comes up from the bowels of New York City (where else?) and possesses the body of a powerful banker played by Gabriel Byrne. Schwarzenegger is the burnt-out suicidal ex-cop who is redeemed by taking on the case. One gets the sense that Schwarzenegger chose this vehicle because indeed, in terms of action challenges, he had so exhausted all other formidable adversaries, leaving only the Prince of Darkness himself.

But the film is confused, as Janet Maslin writes in The New York Times: "End of Days, which is as incoherent about its mysticism as it is about anything else, interrupts stretches of doomsday exposition with the inevitable chases and shutouts and beatings that are its raison d'?tre." Like Devil's Advocate before it, End of Days wants to have it both ways. In this case, to give audiences the kicks we expect at a heavy firepower Schwarzenegger film, yet to swear off violence and get pious at the end. It brings to mind the old adage that a husband wants his wife to go to bed each night a whore and wake up a virgin.

The Ninth Gate, directed by Roman Polanski, is a lackluster thriller with the ghost of Polanski's own Rosemary's Baby trailing behind it. He's tried to conjure up the Devil before and did it better back then. This film concerns a rare book dealer played by a sober, mature Johnny Depp, who is dispatched on a mission by an eccentric in the form of Frank Langella (does he play anything else?) to find several original editions of a many-centuries-old book. The book in question is said to conjure up the Devil on the spot. In this film, the Devil is chased after; rather than a comment on the depravity of our times, we have a single private Prometheus, seeking out Satan. Since Depp's character is charged with the task of essentially expediting the appearance of Satan, his "guardian angel," in the form of Polanski's young wife Emmanuelle Seigner, is not necessarily, with her supernatural aid, looking out for his interests. Like the sublime Angel Heart before it, Ninth Gate uses a form of the private dick genre to mix it up with forces so far beyond the constraints of the genre that they are even more sinister than they might otherwise be. And Polanski's film has the honor of being the first to simultaneously make rare books exciting and Johnny Depp boring.

Stigmata is best described as one long music video. From the outside, we can see that it is mainly concerned with its "hip-Goth" notion of religious suffering. The story concerns a young woman, Frankie Paige (Patricia Arquette), who shows signs of demonic possession. The Vatican sends out its man, Father Andrew Kiernan (Gabriel Byrne, again), whose job it is to research such things. Kiernan naturally has a good amount of sexual tension with the heroine. After graphic, well-photographed scenes of possession (where Frankie yells, is whipped by an unseen force on the subway while in a crucifixion pose and even beats up Father Kiernan herself), it turns out not to be demonic possession but rather the spirit of an altruistic priest who had uncovered a Gospel in Jesus' own words. The Vatican, of course, wants to bury anything that would undermine its authority. Is the film anti-Catholic, as others have charged? Not at all. Behind the silly shock value of conspiracy theories is what the Jesus gospel in the film actually asserts: that he was misunderstood, that his is a grassroots kingdom of God, built on love and humility, not garish cathedrals and distracting politics. It may technically be anti-Church, but what could be more pro-God than that?

The rather perfunctory Bless the Child and Lost Souls are by-the-numbers thrillers that combine elements of all the other films of this genre. And yet both have the courage to follow their convictions through to the bitter end with some form of personal sacrifice. Both concern people who have been singled out to lead the world to the Dark Side. Both are protected by selfless defenders of the faith. Both are dark films that hide an optimistic yet drab belief in the ultimate goodness of people, provided they are faithful and decent, only killing or hurting others in the name of God if they really, really have to.

If there is a primer in this genre of film, it is The Exorcist. For the most part, it presents possession as a cold, hard fact. The scenes of young Regan in the antiseptic hospitals and labs undergoing painful tests only heighten the religious-medical science tensions. But for all its commendations, this fascinating 1973 film raises more questions than neck hairs; why would the Devil, if he really could possess people, waste his time writhing around and yelling obscenities in bed? Wouldn't it be more prudent to keep quiet and go about his nefarious ways out in the world, wreaking havoc on a grand scale?

Which brings us back to the young girl in St. Mark's Square at the Vatican and the Pope trying in vain to free her soul. Father James Halstead of DePaul University, ever the realist, pulls no punches. "Come on, let's suck it up. This is where the rationalists got it right. Let's use our brains to figure out what the hell is going on with these tormented brains that's causing this awful stuff and find a cure for it. This Italian girl doesn't need an exorcist; she needs a medical doctor or maybe therapy and lots of research that may take a hundred years to figure out. The weird stuff in religion is distracting from the larger social and intellectual issues. I do my meditation, too, my rituals, but meanwhile, I want to fight some bad guys on social justice, not some spirit I can't see or anything like that."

In a Handbasket
There is a sentiment shared globally that our nation has become the new Roman Empire. And like all empires, it must come to an end. As Morpheus tells us in the eschatological romp The Matrix, a robot-engineered Armageddon happened because humanity had become too proud, our preening vanity reaching a fever pitch. All this creates an environment ripe for these religious thrillers. After all, why do many turn to religion in the first place, when they are seeking meaning in times of emptiness, confusion and fear? These religious thrillers, however unsuccessfully, are trying to appeal to that sense of despondency, all the while giving something to root for as we ride it out all in good fun. Certainly, there are exceptions—the success of M. Night Shyamalan's films The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable proves it. Shyamalan's films play on the same themes and fears but do so plaintively, almost lugubriously, with a quite literally whispered calm. True, these aren't quite religious thrillers in a theological sense, but they present their conflicts of Good and Evil, Strength and Weakness and one's place in the world with the earnest solemnity of worshippers at prayer.

Unfortunately for many, much of this yearning is manifested in sound bite theology—a form of religiosity that oversimplifies the complexities of biblical verse into something accessible and handy, if slightly inaccurate. The embracing of angels as personal guardians proves this. Yet it is important to realize that convenient spirituality does not at all dismiss the genuine yearning for some sort of communion with the divine.

Consider the boom a few years back in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, which took Hollywood by storm. Jews and non-Jews alike embraced a simplified version of the practice, including celebrities such as Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne, Sandra Bernhard and Madonna (whose ever-changing image, one album ago, was in part a quasi-Hindu theme). Admittedly this is a bit of a generalization, but from all outward appearances we see people cleave to a trend in spirituality, something that broke through the otherwise hip "un-theism" that seems to be pervasive in the frenetically-paced pop culture.

"A lot of highly sophisticated people around the country have an intuitive sense that the cosmos is much more complicated than empirical science and reductionistic academics make it out to be," explains Father Halstead. "And the place where that gets expressed is in the kind of religion that allows the unconscious and non-rational to have its play. Where do artists go to express their contact with the weird, the uncanny, the mysterious and mystical? They write their own stories, and make a buck on it at the same time."

Since these films focus on the hot-button issue of theology, a burning question comes to the fore: Are these films blasphemous? Or, more practically speaking, does the fact that they are in the thriller genre, as opposed to a sober drama, make these very solemn and important theological issues into something trite?

Father Halstead thinks not. "When Religion gets at its most human, it's gritty. Then the intellectuals make it into lofty ideas. And I say that being one of those intellectuals with lofty ideas. But the idea that these films trivialize lofty ideas, and thus trivialize religion? No, I don't think so. But they are trivialized by those of us in academia and in the scientific community who have eviscerated human religiosity. And what these filmmakers are doing is restoring some of that stuff. And I say good for them."

Just the same, this is all a moot point if the films themselves aren't good. Though the critics can bat these films around all the livelong day, it all comes back to the moviegoers, who can best be described as optimistic fatalists. Just as we watch Saturday Night Live, thinking that the next skit really will be funny this time, we go to these thrillers to get our gloomy fix, wallowing in the pessimism of the coming Apocalypse but knowing that it isn't going to come today. Even the skeptics and the atheists get in on the action.

If there is one thread that runs through all these films, it is that they accept the tenets of theology as sound and then find themselves ultimately becoming part of another genre; paranoid thrillers, where you are being chased by the Devil who wants you. But, to paraphrase the saying, "Just 'cause you're paranoid doesn't mean Satan's not after you."

Will these thrillers continue to be made? Yes. They are easy, revolving around conflicts, customs and characters we have been familiar—if not indoctrinated—with since childhood, hearkening back to that time when our imaginations were greater than anything that could be put onscreen. Despite writer Carina Chocano's argument against these simplistic ideas of this ultimate conflict, it might be exactly that—that these films apply understandable notions of Good and Evil.

And maybe if we can fight the Devil, with God on our side, where we are all the chosen people, we can regain some of our purity. Not a bad way to spend eight bucks on a Saturday night.