We’ve reached the end of another Match-Up, and it’s time to see which Faustian Tale stands above the rest. For the record, I will not be including that piece of cinematic excrement The Devil and Max Devlin, as that was not an official entry and was barely an official movie. Let’s start things off with…
Even in a lot of the dramatic films, the Devil almost always seems to have a sense of humor, often as a way to make him initially likable to the Faust of the story. Walter Huston has some great snarks in The Devil and Daniel Webster, Jonathan Pryce’s Mr. Dark has a very dark enjoyment of screwing people over in Something Wicked This Way Comes, Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate sort of laughs at everything happening around him, and Tom Waits’ dry sensibility in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus makes a perfect contrast to Christopher Plummer’s ultra-serious title character. Unsurprisingly, the two funniest come from the respective Bedazzled films. While Liz Hurley has some very funny lines and really should have been used more, the funniest unquestionably is Peter Cook in the original.
Cook’s dry delivery is perfect, because it’s sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. He doesn’t draw attention to himself in a “This is funny” kind of way, but it just comes off like he is telling you about his day. It’s a kind of humor that is really not done much today, but when done well, it’s hilarious.
Since a lot of these films have at least a few horror elements, they will often use creepy atmospheric scores to set the tone. James Horner’s score for Something Wicked This Way Comes gives off the film’s creepy carnival vibe from the get-go, although I have to admit I’m partial to Georges Delerue’s rejected opening theme even more. James Newton Howard’s score makes the tense scenes in The Devil’s Advocate even tenser, and Ry Cooder’s bluesy cues help gives Crossroads some life. However, it’s Angel Heart‘s unsettling score that perfectly complements the film.
If there’s one word to describe the mood Angel Heart conveys, it’s seedy. From the rundown buildings to the horrifying religious aspects, everything makes you uncomfortable, and Trevor Jones’ score is no exception. That saxophone theme prepares you perfectly for what is ahead.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
While the main conflict usually lies between the Faust character and the Devil, plenty of these films have incredibly colorful supporting casts as well. Heath Ledger and Andrew Garfield are both great in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Verne Troyer is even better as Parnassus’ voice of reason. As much as I dislike The Ninth Gate, I’m partial to Jack Taylor’s portrayal of Victor Fargas, a book collector who’s in way over his head. Jeffrey Jones builds a tragically flawed character with Eddie Barzoon in The Devil’s Advocate, but it eventually comes down to three spectacular supporting characters.
It’s such a close call between Stocker Fontelieu’s chilling scene as Ethan Krusemark in Angel Heart, Edward Arnold’s commanding performance as Daniel Webster in The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Jason Robards’ heart-wrenching turn as Charles Halloway in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ultimately though, I have to give it to Robards.
He just brings such incredible gravitas to his scenes, grounding a somewhat scatterbrained story. We care about every word he says, and we know what he’s thinking even when he doesn’t say it. The older father with a young son isn’t explored much, but it’s done so well here that it probably doesn’t need to be again.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Unfortunately, it seems easy for filmmaker’s to resort to making actresses in these films a love interest whose life is negatively affected thanks to the lead. While I like Anne Shirley in The Devil and Daniel Webster and Camilla Horn in Faust, they rarely break out of this. Lily Cole pours all the needed emotion into every scene in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and we really are convinced she is the daughter of a 1000-year-old man. Lisa Bonet is believable as voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot in Angel Heart, but I’ll be honest that I do see some of the criticism that her character mainly exists to do voodoo stuff, have sex with Mickey Rourke, and get murdered. (For what it’s worth, the character is much more complex in the book Falling Angel). In spite of all of these, the winner in this category is Charlize Theron in The Devil’s Advocate.
Mary Ann Lomax seems to be the one character in this film that everyone likes. If Pacino’s Devil is too over-the-top and Keanu’s Kevin Lomax is too, well, Keanu for you, observe Theron in her first movie. She portrays a mental breakdown terrifyingly, and she makes us care not only about herself, but about her husband, which we know full well Keanu Reeves isn’t doing.
BEST DEVIL SPEECH
If there’s one thing these movies teach us, it’s that the Devil loves to monologue. Both Bedazzled Devils spit out a lot of information fast, often so as not to focus too much on the giving up the soul thing. There’s that great scene in Something Wicked This Way Comes where Mr. Dark offers Charles his youth back and rips pages out of a book for each year, and Al Pacino yuks it up wonderfully in his climactic rant/speech at the end of The Devil’s Advocate. There’s one better though, and that’s the chilling “I’m an American” speech from The Devil and Daniel Webster.
Huston’s slick delivery mixed with the brief but punchy words make this stick with you even more than Pacino’s famous speech. The Devil takes pride in America’s horrible activities, and he even calls himself more of an American than Webster.
BEST AND WORST FAUST
It’s easy to make the lead character boring in a story like this, and unfortunately a lot of movies do. Keanu Reeves has very little to offer in The Devil’s Advocate, and it especially shows in his climactic scene with Pacino. As great as The Devil and Daniel Webster is, James Craig plays the character as too dumb. Ralph Macchio does nothing in Crossroads that he didn’t do first in The Karate Kid, and I frankly have no clue what Johnny Depp was doing in The Ninth Gate. There’s no question who the worst is though—that Smash Mouth of acting, Brendan Fraser.
I don’t want to talk about him anymore. He’s done enough harm.
Thankfully, there are a few that do stand out. Gösta Ekman carries Faust just fine, and although he’s not spectacular, he gets the job done. Dudley Moore is enjoyable as Stanley Moon in Bedazzled, and he obviously has great chemistry with Peter Cook. Christopher Plummer almost takes it for his performance as the titular Doctor Parnassus, but Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart is flawless.
Heck, it’s even a spoiler to call him the Faust of the story, but the scene where he realizes the truth is one of the best-acted scenes in any movie. It’s a story that could easily not work, but his performance totally makes you believe it.
BEST AND WORST DEVIL
In contrast to the Fausts, it seems that the actors playing the Devil almost always go all-in on their performances. For the bad ones, I don’t care for De Niro’s performance in Angel Heart, as it’s far too over-the-top, but his look is rightfully creepy. Although it’s not incredibly clear if The Girl in The Ninth Gate is the Devil, that definitely takes it for worst.
Even if the Devil is unseen, it’s an incredibly inconsistent character. Apparently the Devil wrote a book, but the way to follow the instructions in said book makes no sense.
Now for the best, and there are a lot. Emil Jannings has some great scenes in Faust as the classic Mephisto, Jonathan Pryce plays a great slick carny in Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the Devils in both Bedazzled films elevate the material, as does Robert Judd in the otherwise forgettable Crossroads. Looking back, you’ll see I gave perfect scores to both Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate and Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster, so now I have to make a tough choice. Both are the perfect Devils for their time and place, one a larger-than-life ambitious lawyer and the other a tricky huckster. I love how Pacino’s John Milton seems mostly amoral at first but is gradually revealed as pure evil, but Huston’s Mr. Scratch is more of a universal Devil, which is why he gets the point.
His voice is like that little whisper-in-your-ear that is a constant perception of the Devil throughout the ages. It’s the most timeless portrayal while still being appropriate for its setting.
A lot of these films have a basic story in play of “Guy sells his soul, things are good at first but quickly get bad” or in some cases, they get bad right away. Something Wicked This Way Comes throws a bunch of these at us, and while I enjoy the subplots, we needed more time for them to work fully. Similarly, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus could have worked a lot better if Heath Ledger had lived, but the story still works. I enjoy the legal drama Grisham-esque aspects of The Devil’s Advocate, but the mystery of Angel Heart is better.
The story unravels layer-by-layer to a horrifying truth that is finally revealed at the end. Each character teaches us something new about the mysterious Johnny Favorite, and the methods in which they die do too.
BEST AND WORST SCENE
A boring movie like Crossroads doesn’t really have a terrible scene that stands out, but it’s rather just kind of bad all-around. It’s a tough call between the disgusting use of brownface in Bedazzled and the ending of The Ninth Gate, but it ultimately comes down to which made me want to punch my screen more. I knew from a few minutes in that Bedazzled would be dumb, and while the scene was still awful, it wasn’t the biggest shock. The Ninth Gate was clearly leading up to something, and when the floor is pulled out from under us, it’s maddening.
There are a bunch of great scenes competing here, from Mephisto running around the town at night screaming bloody murder in Faust to any of Jason Robard’s scenes in Something Wicked This Way Comes. The scene in The Devil’s Advocate where Kevin talks with Mitch Weaver from the Justice Department is incredibly tense and adds to the craziness of the climax, and of course the climactic scene is great too. The scenes with the nuns in the original Bedazzled are downright hilarious, and the trial of the damned in The Devil and Daniel Webster is an incredibly clever way to wrap things up. The scene where Doctor Parnassus is stuck is his titular imaginiraium is the best part of that movie, but I have to give it to the “I know who I am” scene from Angel Heart.
This scene shows everything Rourke is made of, and he goes through an entire range of emotion in just a few minutes. When he accepts his fate, it’s heartbreaking.
Let’s see where that puts us for the final score.
BEST OVERALL FILM
Seven of these movies are really worth checking out (Faust and Parnassus didn’t score points, but they’re enjoyable), but Angel Heart is fresh, exciting, scary, thought-provoking, and brilliantly acted.
Next week, I’ll be staring the next Match-Up. Thanks for reading!