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Speak of the Devil: The Many Faces of Cinematic Satanism

Speak of the Devil: The Many Faces of Cinematic Satanism (photo)

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The Bible says that Satan “masquerades as an angel of light. In popular culture, we tend to think of him as a big red dude with horns and a pitchfork, or as a talking snake, or as Al Pacino in an Armani suit. The devil, in other words, comes in many different forms. And his followers come in just as many. Unlike a lot of other horror movie staples, there’s no visual archetype for satanists. We recognize a vampire when we see his fangs and a zombie by the rotting flesh, but a Satan-worshipper? Tougher to spot.

In the new indie horror film “The House of the Devil,” an unknowing teenager looking to make some quick cash is lured into a babysitting job by a crew of weirdos who are ultimately revealed to be devil worshippers (not a spoiler, folks, look at the title). This particular coven of satanists are a bunch of suburban eccentrics, living in their creepy old house, speaking quietly and persuasively.

If the movie makes you worry about satanists (and I’m talking murderous cinematic satanists, not contemporary religious ones) lurking amongst us in society, I have bad news for you: according to the movies, they really are everywhere, and they’re awfully hard to spot until they’re using your body for a piñata. As a public service to help people identify blood-drinking devil worshippers in a more timely fashion, here’s a list of just a few of the different ways satanists have appeared onscreen.

10302009_SeventhVictim.jpgAs Refined Greenwich Village Socialites
In Mark Robson’s “The 7th Victim” (1943)

The few tried-and-true hallmarks of movie satanists — unholy rituals, chanting, drinking blood, sadistic brutality against non-believers — are almost completely absent in this film from famed horror producer Val Lewton. A young girl at boarding school named Mary (Kim Hunter) learns her sister has stopped paying her tuition, and heads to New York City to figure out why. Mary can’t find her sister, but the trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads to a group called The Palladists, a cult that’s a study in contradictions: they worship Satan, but preach non-violence. They hang out in Greenwich Village, but they’re all well-dressed, middle-aged urbanites. Eventually, they do get their hands on Mary’s sister, but they don’t sacrifice her; they sit her down at a table with a cup of poison and peer-pressure her into drinking it.

Clearly, what we have here are some satanists with their hands tied by the strict morality and violence guidelines of the Hays Production Code. Unless you find the idea of sharply dressed white people alarming, this is not a particularly horrifying bunch, though director Mark Robson does use the Palladists’ beliefs as the basis for one terrific shot. Fearing Mary is getting too close to the truth, the cult sends one of their members to intimidate her, which she does while Mary is taking a shower. We never see the cultist’s face, just a shadow on the shower curtain, one that bears an unmistakably devilish shape.

10302009_RosemarysBaby.jpgAs Nosy Neighbors
In Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

Since satanic cults worship the devil, and the devil is the embodiment of evil, films about satanists force us to consider what the embodiment of evil looks like. In the case of “Rosemary’s Baby,” evil is personified by the old couple across the hall who are incapable of minding their own business. Young marrieds Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow) think they’ve found the perfect New York apartment: big, cheap and in a great location. There’s just one problem: nosy neighbors Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), who are constantly sticking their noses where they don’t belong.

When Rosemary gets pregnant, they insist she use the obstetrician they recommend; when Rosemary wants to take pre-natal vitamins, Minnie forces her to drink a daily herbal smoothie. And sure, they seem to mean well, but they become so controlling Rosemary starts to wonder; why do they care so much? Could it be… Satan? As in “The 7th Victim,” the satanic cult’s membership is predominantly older, white, and upper class, though this particular organization is larger and more conspiratorial, with bigger goals and more powerful means at their disposal. It’s particularly upsetting how easily — and how quickly — they are able to turn husband against wife with promises of undeserved career success, and how no one around Rosemary notices the sad fates that befall anyone who gets curious about the Castevets. If only good people were as nosy as Roman and Minnie.

10302009_IDrinkYourBlood.jpgAs Rabid Hippies
In David E. Durston’s “I Drink Your Blood” (1970)

“Let it be known, sons and daughters, that Satan was an acid head!” says Horace Bones (Bhaskar), the leader of a band of hippie Lucifer lovers. True to his confused but sincerely held beliefs, Bones and the rest of his motley crew — including a pregnant girl in an obvious wig, a mute teenager, and a middle-aged Asian woman — drop acid, freak out, and sacrifice farm animals to their dark, tie-dyed lord. Bones and his gang don’t murder people so much as they just rough them up, probably because they’re too high to know the difference. One of their victims is a teenage girl who witnesses one of their rituals; when her younger brother finds out what they did to her, he retaliates by feeding the hippies a batch of meat pies poisoned with rabid dog blood. Soon, they’re all foaming at the mouth and running amok through the town, killing some of the people they encounter and sickening the rest with rabies. “I Drink Your Blood” is low-rent grindhouse cinema, with dialogue and acting as laughable as you’d expect — not to mention a story that requires a ten-year-old boy to draw a syringe full of blood from a dead dog and then inject it unnoticed into a dozen meat pies — but the idea of satanism as an infection spread from one confused young person to the next is a perfectly paranoid metaphor for the early 1970s, when folks were scared shitless of crazy hippies thanks to Charles Manson and his deranged Family.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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