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What the Devil: A Taxonomical Guide to Knowing Your Movie Satans

In Winter’s Tale (released today), Will Smith takes a break from two solid decades of good-guy roles to play the Devil. Even in a fantastical romance epic that features a time-traveling Colin Farrell and a flying horse, tapping the Fresh Prince to play the Prince of Darkness might just be the film’s most bizarre detail. At this week’s premiere, director Akiva Goldsman described his casting choice thusly: “I needed the devil to be charming. And Will’s the most charming man I know.” (As for how he got his Hancock and I Am Legend collaborator to sell his soul for 5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes: “Twenty years’ worth of favors. I just reached back and sort of begged a lot.”) Of course, portraying the Devil as a smooth-talking charmer has long been a popular film tactic, but movie Satans come in many other flavors as well. Vulture celebrates Will Smith’s cloven hooves with a breakdown of the various breeds of Evil Ones to have been satanically birthed into movie theaters over the years.

This breed usually resembles the devil you’d imagine from traditional literary and artistic renderings: a bulbous forehead, horns, red skin, a tail. The most recognizable example of this is Tim Curry in Legend, but the classic devil was spotted more recently having his way with Jonah Hill in This Is the End, while Dave Grohl played a musically inclined version of the classic devil who beats Jack Black at drumming in Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny (little-known fact: the devil is often pretty good at music, although he is better behind the drum kit than he is on the fiddle).

This is the devil that no one knows for sure is actually the Antichrist incarnate until it’s way too late. A lot of horror movies employ the Sneaky Devil, but one of the best examples is Frank Langella in The Ninth Gate. He was so evil! What was his deal?

Long before the Devil Wears Prada, the metaphor of devil-as-corporate-boss was given the most literal possible treatment in The Devil’s Advocate. In the 1997 film, Al Pacino plays a smooth-talking, charming lawyer who just happens to be prince of the underworld (although his menace here pales in comparison to his later turn as real-life evil lawyer Roy Cohn, in Angels in America). The Suave Devil, which gains its newest member with Will Smith’s performance in Winter’s Tale, exemplifies greed, charm, power, and good tailoring, and has become a popular way to portray Satan while simultaneously assailing the character of bankers and lawyers. Other Suave Devils you know: Gabriel Byrne as the devil inhabiting a Wall Street banker in End of Days; Robert De Niro as a dapper devil with a cane in Angel Heart; Peter Stormare in Constantine (which Goldsman also produced) as a devil whose snazzy all-white ensemble stays dry-cleaner spiffy even while plunging his hands into Keanu Reeves’s chest cavity.

The sexy devil was best epitomized by Liz Hurley in Bedazzled, titillating millions of teenage boys and spawning decades’ worth of ill-thought slutty devil Halloween costumes. While not a particularly good movie, the 2000 film is memorable for how sexy Liz Hurley was in it (like, really sexy) and proving that the only credentials one really needs to play the devil are a variety of skimpy red outfits, the ability to wear a python as an accessory (sorry, Britney), and an English accent. While the devil has often displayed promiscuous tendencies — see Al Pacino in Devil’s Advocate and Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick — Hurley was the clearest embodiment of the devil as pure, unadulterated sexual temptation. She was also one of the few female devils: Rosalinda Celentano played Satan in The Passion of the Christ, but her bald, androgynous portrayal looked an awful lot like Ralph Fiennes’s Lord Voldemort (a.k.a., not sexy).

This category is reserved solely for James Coco in the largely forgotten 1987 comedy Hunk. We will never forget.

The Benign Devil is really not so bad, and tends to employ his devilishness for ends that most of us can reasonably identify with. In Little Nicky, Harvey Keitel’s light-hearted Satan is an overworked patriarch itching for retirement, whose deviling duties consist mostly of babysitting Adam Sandler, fixing sports games, and shoving pineapples up Hitler’s ass. Other benign devils include Trey Parker’s Satan in The South Park Movie (He’s misunderstood! He just wants to be loved!); George Burns from Oh God, You Devil; and Jon Lovitz’s Mephistopheles on Saturday Night Live (which, okay, has never been featured in a movie, but should be, because we would watch the hell out of that).

The Creepy Devil
The creepy devil is more understated than his campy, red-bow-tied counterparts, and tends to avoid flashy fireballs and face paint for a manner that is more insidiously menacing. The creepy devil tends to speak in a soft voice and is prone to theological debates, mind games, and ominous ear whispering. See Mr. Frost, in which Jeff Goldblum out-Goldblums himself as a serial-killing devil confined to a mental asylum, Rosalinda Celentano in The Passion of the Christ, and a pre-Aragorn Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy, who softly mutters lines like: “I can lay you out and fill your mouth with your mother’s feces, or we can talk.” (Cross-file under: sexy devil)

The Mischievous Devil
The mischievous devil and the benign devil are pretty similar, except the mischievous devil gets to have way more fun. The best example of this is Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, who uses his satanic powers primarily to get laid and to punish people for gossiping behind his back. The classic devils from This Is the End and the Tenacious D movie are both pretty mischievous, and Pinto’s evil conscience advising him to get laid in Animal House would also qualify (“Look at those gazongas. You’ll never get a better chance!”). The mischievous devil usually reminds you a lot of the worst friend you had in college.

The Littlest Devil
While the devil child trope has become pretty overplayed at this point, it might be the scariest type of devil (and, along with the ambiguous devil, is certainly the favored choice of the horror genre). Linda Blair from The Exorcist is the classic example of this, as is every kid from the Omen movies, and any baby whose conception involved some sort of deal and/or bargaining. The Littlest Devil is the best counterpoint to the other types of devil, because even sleeping with Liz Hurley does not make up for having to spend that much money on exorcism bills down the line.

A Taxonomy of Movie Devils