A Mashup of Devils



These days one doesn’t have to look strictly to horror movies to find devils. Both 2007 and 2008 were awash with cinematic bête noires of all shapes and sizes (Sweeney Todd: The Barber of Fleet Street, No Country for Old Men, W., The Dark Knight). But what is a devil, really, what purpose do they serve, and why is it so difficult to recognize a devil when we see one? For the same reason we rarely know or truly see ourselves.  Devils are not extrinsic phenomena, hence the term “inner demon.” Rather, they represent the systems we are all entangled in and riddled with. Jim Jarmusch employs a similar metaphor of intrinsic access in his new film The Limits of Control, where, as Kent Jones points out in Film Comment, “An avenging angel stands atop a hill gazing down at an apparently impregnable compound,” and then, cut, “he’s inside the compound” (my emphasis). In The Limits of Control, the Devil can enter the seemingly impenetrable compound freely because the outside is really in. In other words, the compound is a metaphor for the fortress of the human psyche.

In horror movies, devils are usually aberrations of guilt and repression—the names we give to things we want to divorce from reality. As the corporate Zen master of violence and retribution in No Country for Old Men, Anton Chigurh, aka “Sugar” (“a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”) is in part a custom-made devil that outlaw cowboy, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, who plays another devil in W.), has personally summoned into the world. A perfect vengeance machine, on par with the Terminator, Michael Myers, Jaws, and Jason, Sugar is unstoppable largely because he’s a stand-in for moral breakdown.

At his core, Sugar is a corporate cog; a man who always does his job—no questions asked. In Seducing the Demon, Erica Jong writes about the demon’s deceptively flashy appearance: “The job of the writer is to seduce the demons of creativity and make up stories. Often you go to bed with a man who claims to be a demon and later you find out he’s just an everyday slob.”

The Hungarian-sounding Anton Chigurh is reminiscent of another famed devil—corporate slob-in-disguise Verbal Kint’s colloquial Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. In Seducing the Demon, Jong, analyzing Bashevis Singer’s story “Taibele and Her Demon,” notes, “Taibele doesn’t want to acknowledge that her lover is merely human” while Moss swears by Sugar’s susceptibility. It’s what keeps him alive. In No Country, Moss executes his escapes with efficiency. He’s organized and careful. He plans and prepares. He has no illusions.

As the movie’s prey, it’s de riguer that Moss believe in his own—rather than Sugar’s—indestructibility. How else does one survive the Devil? On the one hand, Sugar is a larger than life devil, unrivaled, requiring a silver bullet like a Werewolf  (No Country for Old Men‘s prop master noted that while “Moss has to work for his weapons. Sugar somehow just seems to pull them out of thin air). On the other, he’s plain and banal—a relentless bureaucrat. Like the IRS, he spares no one, shows up at people’s doors like a monthly bill, and it’s nothing personal. Bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) insists that when it comes to psychopaths, Sugar’s in a league of his own. Only that isn’t entirely true. When it comes to the everyday—what to wear—Sugar is no demon. He is, to use Jong’s description, part-slob. Sugar’s bad haircut and desire to dress well (the film’s costume designer Mary Zophres points out that Sugar’s cowboy boots and bowl haircut indicate ineptitude) reveal that his concerns are partly quotidian. Dragging his moody, combatant body around like a hangover, Sugar privately fusses over his hair and clothes and has no friends, which in his case, unlike most horror monsters, seems relevant somehow. Sugar’s clothes unmask him. They’re his Achilles’ heal. His kryptonite.

Jong explains that in “Taibele and Her Demon” a man “pretending to be a demon visits by night a pretty young woman… At first the demon terrified her with his ugliness, but then she falls in love with him—as much for his vivid stories of hell and heaven as for his demonic lovemaking.” Jong points out that, among other things, Singer’s story is about Taibele’s (women’s) need to believe that the man she willingly engages in non-traditional sex with is a demon “so that she thinks she has no choice but to submit to him.” For Jong the story is partly about surreptitious desires (the body’s occult) and the illicit narratives we assign to them. Perhaps, then, The Entity, in which a malevolent poltergeist brutally rapes Barbara Hershey repeatedly, is really a movie about a woman who secretly and shamefully enjoys enacting rape fantasies with her male lover. In Rosemary’s Baby, the Devil is Rosemary’s husband, Guy, who rapes Rosemary in order to impregnate her with the Devil’s offspring. But maybe, there is no Devil. Maybe the Devil is just a bad marriage. A word used to describe domestic hell. In “Taibele and Her Demon,” Singer describes Tailbele’s demon lover: “sometimes his breath smelled of onion, sometimes of garlic… His body felt like the body of her husband, bony and hairy, with an Adam’s apple and a navel… His feet were not goose feet, but human with nails and frost blisters.” This monster sounds a lot like the demon that assaults Rosemary while she’s sleeping. Could it be that Rosemary, a good girl, doesn’t want to admit to having—let alone liking—rough sex with Guy? Is “demon” a name we give to otherwise “normal” husbands who occasionally like to rape their wives? Jong argues that “Devil” is how we absolve the hubris and shame of our desires. By using a misnomer—referring to her sullied infant as the Devil—Rosemary is able to severe maternal ties with it.

The Rabbis found the angel of death mentioned in Psalms lxxxix. 45 (A. V. 48), where the Targum translates: “There is no man who lives and, seeing the angel of death, can deliver his soul from his hand.” “You’ve seen him and you’re not dead?” Wells asks when Moss wakes up at the hospital. Llewelyn Moss is what’s known in the horror genre as the final girl. The Devil is also referred to as the Angel of Death, which stems from the Bible. It’s argued that sometimes the Grim Reaper is actually able to induce death, leading to tales that he can be bribed, tricked, or outwitted, like when Sugar cruelly orders his victims to flip a quarter in order to cement (“outwit”) their fate. But no one lives after seeing the Devil and Moss doesn’t ultimately live either. Though not much is made of his dying or his procedural efforts (the mark of a Coen Brother’s film is always rigmarole. See their latest Burn After Reading) to survive, and usually not much is made of people’s deaths. So why should death count more on film? Because actors are involved.

In Rosemary’s Baby, the Devil appeals to Guy, a desperate, out of work actor, played by John Cassavettes, who, having good looks on his side, takes on the greater job of fooling, seducing, and demonic recruiting. And, likewise, when Clive Owen’s servant Robert Parks in Gosford Park is asked, “Do you think he’s a murderer?” “It’s worse than that,” he moans, “he’s an actor.” Who knows what purpose actors actually serve, on and off the screen; if fame isn’t always simultaneously a pact (a binding contract with a system) and a form of unwanted possession. For, does anyone ever really know what they’re getting into when they make a deal? Fame is always represented dualistically—as half blessing, half curse. Part angel, part demon. Heaven and hell. The demon is always the second half of the success story. The note you end on. When it comes to fame, instead of an unwanted someone or something—a foreign entity—possessing you, the “body” is more generally a host for the amorphous monster known simply as Culture.

In the sin-inspired Se7en, Gwenyth Paltrow saw the Devil too—or its 20th interpreter, in the form of Kevin Spacey, who also plays the Devil-as-apocrypha in The Usual Suspects—but doesn’t live to tell anyone about it. Instead Paltrow, like Salome in reverse, ends up with her head FedEx’d to the desert, which is also where No Country for Old Men takes place. In The Usual Suspects, the Devil does live to talk about the Devil but only because he’s talking about himself; ad-libbing, hence the name Verbal Kint. But unlike Verbal, in No Country Javier Bardem’s Sugar isn’t humanized or turned into a romantic figure like John Cusack’s mercenary contract-killing devil in Grosse Point Blank or War, Inc., (the Devil/death often comes for people in the form of a politically-motivated assignment). In an interview about Say Anything 20 years ago, Cusack stated that he liked Llyod Dobler because he wasn’t a “charm monster,” (unlike Cusack himself), which is how actors kill people—by beguiling them to death.

In The Usual Suspects, the Devil requires translation, which is where Verbal comes in. When the Hungarian Arkosh Kovash finally outed the Devil-“Soze”-it was in a language most American audiences couldn’t understand because the Devil is impossible to comprehend. But Verbal tries. He concocts him on the spot out of scraps-post-its, newspaper clippings, random words, coffee cups, pictures, names, lies, and racist lore—and then casts him onto people like a spell. Not coincidentally, then, the first person to bring up the Devil is the Devil. “Who is Keyser Soze?” Verbal asks, terrified, and his question, along with the name, summons the Devil and activates a fiendish yarn (in Tim Burton’s satanic romp Beetlejuice, the name Beetlejuice, also known as Beetlegeist, must be said out loud three times in order to release the devil back into the world), much like in the fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, where names and misnomers are everything. The Everyman and Nobody, philosopher Michel de Certeau explains in The Practice of Everyday Life, “plays out on the stage the very definition of literature as a world and of the world as literature. Rather than merely being represented in it, the ordinary man (in this case Verbal Kint) acts out the text itself.”

Rumpelstiltskin, like Soze, is part-German and chameleonic when it came to his nom de guerres, as each country took turns renaming him. He was Tom Tit Tot in England and Päronskaft (meaning “pear stalk”) in Sweden.  The name Rumpelstilzchen in German translates to “little rattle stilt” (A stilt is a post or pole that provides support for a structure). A rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was the name of a type of goblin, also called a pophart or poppart, that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks. The meaning is similar to rumpelgeist (“rattle ghost”) or poltergeist, a mischievous spirit that clatters and moves household objects. Other related concepts are mummarts or boggarts and hobs that are mischievous household spirits that disguise themselves. Goblins were known for stealing unattended babies—the thing that Rumpelstilitskin was after—and switching them with changelings. The changeling story is at the heart of both Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. Thus, Rumpelstiltskin is the leitmotif running through all devils.

Fairytales also conceal the dark side of governments. In The Shock Doctrine, Noami Klein sees this ancient form of ghoulish plundering in George W. Bush’s habeas corpus. Using the metaphor of shock as scare tactic after 9/11, the Bush Adminstration’s cronies kidnapped Arab-looking men for being “enemy combatants” and held them captive in secret prisons beyond the rule of law. Shock was employed as a political maneuver to lull the rest of the country into acquiescence, creating what Klein calls “the shadow state of the Blackwaters and the Halliburtons.” “History shows us that building a secret prison opens up a Pandora’s box in Hell,” writes Noami Wolf in The End of America. Philip Zimbardo describes this process of illegal detainment and torture as the Lucifer Effect in his book by the same title. Klein defines a shock doctrine as “the gap between event and information or event and analysis.”  “We go into shock,” she explains in an interview, “when something huge happens that we can’t process into a story or a narrative. Information, analysis, and narrative are the tools of shock resistance. We can still be frightened and hurt when the next shock comes, but the disorientation and regression—which is where we lose our wits and our rights—happens when we lose our bearings, when we lose our story, and when we allow ourselves to become childlike.” One could argue that Rosemary’s Baby is in fact an allegory about what happens to women when they get shocked by patriarchal institutions (marriage) and, regressing into infancy, lose themselves. It’s Rosemary, a pre-second-wave feminist, who becomes the changeling—an alien to herself—when, similar to 1975’s The Stepford Wives, a brand new wife replaces the old wife, making women strangers to their own bodies.

At the end of No Country, Sheriff Bell’s (Tommy Lee Jones) rhapsodizes about the nature of violence, explaining devils as the political reality of nations. As a sheriff, Bell knows he can’t do anything about the problem of devils, for nations, like devils, are eternally entangled. “This country’s hard on people,” he complains “You can’t stop what’s coming.” Society is the true devil in the film and devils are inextricable; buried deep. Sheriff Bell describes Sugar as “an indiscriminate killer… A complete mystery,” while Bardem says Sugar is a symbol for a new kind of drug-related, gang warfare. Sugar sounds Mexican and the movie largely concerns the border between America and Mexico as an artery for drug trafficking. But what does it mean for Bardem, a Latin man, to play that symbol? To traffic racial and cultural meaning in the film while pretending not to? To kick it up like dust in the desert. Ethnicity is turned into the invisibility of monsters, a racial cop-out on the part of the Coens.  Often devils are not known by sight. When Verbal Kint relays the source of Soze’s vengeful rage to Chazz Palminteri’s detective Dave Kujan, “Soze” is merely a cut-up of myths and clichés. Faceless, he’s shown engulfed in a circle of fire and long, wild hair that symbolizes the East. The Old-World and the old world order (To kill one enemy, in Soze’s case, it’s the Hungarians, you have to, as the Joker points out in The Dark Knight, “burn down the world”). And when Verbal is finally unveiled as the Devil the reveal is in the form of a faxed sketch. The Devil is just a drawing or the “Verbal” description that leads to the drawing.

The Usual Suspects flips Erica Jong’s demon description on its head. The Devil doesn’t trick you by being a handsome actor like Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby. Rather, the demon seduces—passes for demon—by playing a crippled slob like Verbal Kint, who weaves the tale of the Devil using the façade of the humdrum and unremarkable—the Nobody (“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”). Spacey also utilizes the plain-Jane moniker “John Doe” as the Devil in Se7en. In A History of Violence, the Devil is the murderous and flamboyant gangster “Joey,” the man the ordinary Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) used to be. Stall reinvents himself as a Nobody when he leaves his violent past behind. One of the anagrammed words the name Keyser Soze produces is Zero. In other words, nothing. The Devil is a non-entity (“And like that,” Verbal concludes, “he was gone,” then blows the fictitious monster into thin air). “Nobody knew [Soze],” Verbal, a mouthpiece for a non-existent devil, tells detective Kujan, “or saw anybody who worked directly for him.” Similarly, there’s the feeling that Spacey’s Jon Doe has little or nothing to do with the schematic crimes that have been committed in Se7en. The devil’s arrest is simply perfunctory lip service to the viewer and the conventions of the whodunit genre. When we finally do see Doe/Devil captured in handcuffs, he has no fingerprints, so detectives are forced to release him because without fingerprints (which he’s sliced away with a razor bade and slowly abraded), he doesn’t exist.

Denying any conscious ethno-characterization, director Joel Coen describes Sugar as “unplaceable ethnically and nationally,” but Javier Bardem, on the other hand, is. Coen says Sugar is Hungarian, like Soze’s fabled enemy, only he doesn’t sound like it. He characterizes Sugar ethnically, but only to get out of really doing so—thus, covering a real identity with a fake identity, or as Certueau put it, by using “a name that betrays the absence of a name.” Soze is a fictitious monster invented by the American Verbal Kint, and nations, especially non-American ones, are coined by other nations. Verbal invents a racialized Devil and tells Kujan that Soze “was supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German.” Like Carol, the Jewish Holocaust survivor in Jim Thompson’s The Grifters, Bardem says Sugar’s power is that “he doesn’t need to be explained,” and he isn’t and neither is Carol, who doesn’t even exist in the movie version of the book. Sugar is an unexplained and unexplainable presence. bell hooks made a similar argument about the unexplained use of James Earl Jones’ “black” voice to symbolize the dark Father-as-Devil in the Star Wars trilogy, by asking, “who decides what voice will constitute the villainous voice?” By reducing Sugar to the indefinable, as directors who actively participated in assigning specific attributes to him, are the Coens espousing a view of movie making they don’t practice (if the Coens are known for anything, it’s their meticulous construction)? Are they hiding behind the demon that pretends that movies are pure magic, not conscious manipulation?

In most horror movies, devils are not the norm. They’re the exception. A glitch in the system. In No Country and Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, however, devils are implicit modern outgrowths of ongoing social disorders. Straight horror films tend to be more optimistic. There’s usually an end to suffering. An antidote to hell. Unlike the complicated hell of life, movie hell offers an escape. Javier Bardem says that Sugar “shows that violence doesn’t have an explanation most of the time, or any roots.” While in The Usual Suspects the Devil is in part the descendent of cultural mythologies about race and nationality and the way language scapegoats and spreads devils around à la George W. Bush and the open-ended Devil-as-terrorism, there are also more literal “Devil” forms like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. But if Sugar is anything, if devils are anything, they’re roots, parables, and explanations. They’re the byproducts of modernity and the global exchange of power. They’re also, as Noami Klein points out, the kind of information that can save our lives when we’ve been confiscated, switched for someone else, and held against our will. Rather than dreams, devils are the purest form of reality.

Masha Tupitsyn is the author of Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007) and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). She is currently working on a new book about John Cusack and the politics of acting, Star Notes as well as a collection of essays on film, Screen to Screen. She also writes daily film criticism on Twitter using only 140 characters. Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in Venus Magazine, Animal Shelter, Fanzine, Creative Aggression, the anthologies Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century and the Encyclopedia Project Volume II, F-K (Encyclomedia Press, 2009), Make/Shift, Bookforum, Fence, Five Fingers Review, and San Francisco’s KQED’s The Writer’s Block. More from this author →