Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Milton's Satan as Horror Movie Icon...rough ideas

It appears as though the modern world is horrified by many things; demons, possession, ghosts, mass murderers, satanic cults, witches, zombies and serial killers but not the devil. If you take a look at horror movies from the last thirty years, all of the above feature heavily in the storylines, but Satan is very hard to find. Of movies that do reference Satan, the movies tend to fall into a couple of categories; ones where Satan either works through proxies or is an invisible force such as Spawn, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Prince of Darkness and Devil. Then there are the movies that feature the Anti-Christ, not to be confused with Satan, such as The Omen movies and the recent reboot. Then there are the movies that either feature lesser devils or have a humorous bent such as Bedazzled (both versions), Damn Yankees, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, Little Nicky and Heaven Can Wait. 

However, for my purposes, I am interested in examining films that feature an original portrayal of Satan as a character such as The Prophecy, Constantine, Angel Heart, The Witches of Eastwick, Mister Frost and The Devil's Advocate. However, closer examination of these movies reveals that all of these characterizations have their basis in Milton's characterization of Satan from Paradise Lost. Each of these portrayals alternately reference the war in heaven, Satan's human tendencies of pride and jealousy, his use of rhetoric, his interference with, and manipulation of, man.

It is telling that each of these movies is not primarily listed as horror. Instead, if you search, they are alternately listed as thrillers, mysteries or fantasy, with horror occasionally listed, but by no means prominent. Perhaps this suggests that the modern world no longer views Satan as a horror. As Mister Frost suggests, scientific rationales seems to have replaced the devil in man's mind. Modern horror films focus on people more than anything else, and how they deal with superhuman, but recognizable threats. It is of interest though, that when Satan is present, his characterization is that of Milton; he is a fallen angel standing in opposition to Heaven, he is a liar, able to confuse and manipulate the men around him, he is capable of great power, yet also can be thwarted (or can he?) by the free will of man. Satan, as Milton first portrayed him, is still a compelling character, even if, or perhaps because, film portrayals of him stand a little outside of the norm.

This paper will examine these movies in pairs, according to their function: The Prophecy and Constantine for the Miltonic portrayal of Lucifer as a fallen angel who stands in opposition to heavenly host, in both represented by the character of Gabriel, Mister Frost and The Devil's Advocate for their use of rhetoric, and Angel Heart and The Witches of Eastwick for their manipulative characteristics. While each of these films focus on different aspects of Satan, each is recognizable as having their roots in Milton's creation.
In both The Prophecy and Constantine, Lucifer appears late in the movie, 1:40 in Constantine and 1:14 in The Prohpecy. Both appear as a result of Gabriel's suspect behavior, casting doubt on the idea that the angels in heaven are always right. Both try to manipulate the main characters of Daggett and Constantine, only to be thwarted by the characters' free will- Daggett when he refuses to go with Lucifer, and Constantine when he choose to sacrifice his life for Angela Dodson's sister's soul. Both are self serving; in The Prophecy Lucifer is concerned that Gabriel's actions will make Earth a hell, hence encroaching on Lucifer's territory, "Two Hells is one Hell too many", while in Constantine, Lucifer  is tricked by Constantine in foiling Gabriel's plans to bring the Anti-Christ to Earth, making it a hell to test the potential good of man. In both, the foil of Gabriel is motivated by jealousy, both Walken's character in The Prophecy and Swinton's in Constantine are jealous of God's love of man and their capability for free will.
In both Mister Frost and The Devil's Advocate, the characters of Satan are seen as great manipulations, whose rhetoric is the tool they use to corrupt man. In Mister Frost, Jeff Goldblum as the devil seeks to regain his power from science. He says that modern man longer "believe in God or me" and that he is there because the scientists have messed things up. That he "must reveal to the world your [scientists] incompetence". By forcing a psychiatrist, Sarah Day, a representative of the scientific world, to believe in him, and believe that he must be destroyed/killed, Frost gains back the power science had stolen from him.  He states that "he's back because he made her believe in him".
Scholars have examined the connection between The Devil's Advocate and Paradise Lost before due to Pacino's character being named John Milton. However, this scholarship looks at the surface connections, and fails to examine how this character is a modern portrayal of Milton's Satan.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Milton's Satan as Horror Movie Icon...research

Yesterday I spent hours watching movies and taking notes for this paper: Constantine, The Prophecy, and Angel Heart (which by the way is two hours of my life I'll never get back). Today it was The Witches of Eastwick and I've had a couple of thoughts:
  • Angel Heart and The Witches of Eastwick are both based on books, which I had initially counted out from my criteria. Now I'm wondering if I need to go back and reread the source material and see if the film maker created an original portrayal of Satan, or if it's in the book.
  • At the start of this, my original idea was to analyze the personality, look, rhetoric and function of the character in each film. After sitting and watching films yesterday, I still think this is the way to go, but now I think I also want to look at how these characters function as pairs- so Mortenson and Stormare for instance. 
  • I realized when I was finished watching and taking notes today that actually few of the movies I chose are "classic" horror films. So, I went to IMDB out of curiosity to see what genre they put them in. Almost all of them were fantasy/horror/thriller. So, now I'm thinking maybe I need a pair of "classic" horror films to balance my argument out. My original intent was to choose a variety of films, but was shocked to realize that there are few horror films that actually include the character of Satan. Demons, Satan Worshipers, Witches abound, but Satan doesn't make many appearances. The one I'm looking at is Prince of Darkness.
  • I can't find a copy of Mister Frost, but I have geek friends looking. Let me know if you know where I can get a copy.
So, research stage is good, and as with all great research, some great questions have been raised as I go along.
Go I wish I knew in undergad that you could make a living doing this...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Milton's Satan as Horror Movie Icon...brainstorming

Last year at SAMLA, as I sat through a panel that discussed the Saw movies as medieval morality plays, I started jotting down notes about a possible topic.
Original title: Milton Goes to the (Horror) Movies. Original movies for analysis: The Devil's Advocate, Constantine, The Prophecy. Looking at the portrayal of a humanistic angel, with "angelic" looks, capable of horrendous acts. Complexity of character. The fact that all of these works fall outside the normal purview of horror films because the presentation does not focus on the grotesque physical (of demons) but rather on the horrendous acts this "angel" commits.
The broader idea (and the heart of my obsession) about how the folkloric figure of Satan is portrayed in film. So- some brief, sketchy thoughts, that will at some point between now and November become my conference paper...

Milton's Paradise Lost is responsible for the modern idea of Satan: a character with a dual nature- that of a humanistic angel and a fierce demon. Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern horror films. Usually, the scholarly conversation focuses on literature analyzed with art. Rarely art analyzed with literature. I suggest that current film studies are incomplete by wanting to draw a strong line between film and literature analysis. An area that has been neglected is an examination of how literature has informed art, in this case, the visual art of movies.
It is not an approach without difficulty- it is difficult to delineate between archetype and character and in this era of reinvention it can be difficult to determine the difference between the original and the copy. However, I believe it is important to examine how great literary characters are portrayed in works not based on them. So, no movie adaptations of literary works that include the devil.

Anyway, those are the broad strokes. If anyone has any suggestions for films I should include, I'd welcome them. I'd like to have a broad spectrum of movies, spanning several decades. However, it has to fit the above criteria.
Thanks in advance for the help!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Yep- still obsessed

While it's been over a year since I posted here, I find my obsession still has it's grapple hooks into my very being.
Last spring, I had perhaps the most influential class of my academic life. The astounding and fabulous Will Banks taught me how to be part of the academic conversation- how to have the courage to present my ideas at scholarly conferences, how to post to list-servs, how to get my name out. More than anything, he gave me the confidence to believe that I had something important to say. A year later, he is still here, offering congrats and support.
This all started three years ago, with Paradise Lost in Context with Jeffrey Shoulson. Never has a Bread Loaf class had a bigger impact. It was because of that class that I became obsessed with my current topic- Milton. And yet, as I look back on the last few years, I realize that there have been steps along the way that have focused my obsession to laser exactness. It may have started with Shoulson's class, but narrowing the scope happened with Will's class. And last summer, a class on Southwestern Literature and Film of all things, with Jesse Aleman seemed to lock everything into place. It was there that I was introduced to how folkloric figures can function in literature, and how they can also be seen in big, wide world.
And so that has become my focus. I realize as I just reread my dissertation outline here, that the bones and hints of it were there all along. An examination of the folkloric figure of Satan in British literature, from the beginning and culminating with Milton's portrayal. Because honestly, we have never progressed past his portrayal.
So, the latest steps in my Milton addiction this year have been:
  • chairing a panel at SAMLA called Milton and Paradise Lost's Legacy. Presenting a paper on this panel, "Milton's Satan as Horror Movie Icon". Guess I should get started on that huh? Currently it's just scribbles on scraps from last year's SAMLA
  • submitting my Loki and Satan paper to the John Milton Conference in Murfreesboro, TN in October. Fingers crossed on that, because it is the big time.
  • revising my SAMLA paper from last year about the 1688 illustrations into article form so I can submit it to Milton Quarterly. It's finished, although I need to revise the citations per MLA Guide for Scholarly Publication (who knew there was a difference?)
I've also started to look around (very gingerly) at PhD programs that would be a good fit. I think I'm lucky in that I have a very specific focus. But I have no idea.
So that's the update on my Milton obsession. Still obsessed. I figure I'll continue to be obsessed. It's hard to believe that this has been in my head for three years now, quite a lot of research, writing, talking about Milton. One would think the brain worm would have worked it's way out by now, or that I'd be bored or sick of the topic, but no sign of that.
I suppose that's a good sign that I've chosen a good field!