Satan, Lucifer, Evil, Beelzebub, “the devil in the details.” Whatever you call it or him, the satanic character treads back a long stretch of decades in the past to the 1896 short silent film, House of the Devil, with a then-ambitious duration of 3 minutes, where the devil made his first appearance onscreen. Nonetheless, many literary poems, dramas, plays, and novels have contributed to the image of the devil before it, but nothing quite solidified the common conception of the devil like the movies.
It’s always a great pleasure to watch protagonists flirt with Hell personified in films, and an acting challenge for anyone playing the diabolical character with celestial powers and cosmic beams piercing through their eyes. Fundamentally, the biblical term “Devil” is associated with cynicism, dread, melancholy, and omens. There has been a bevy of interpretations, though, and not just one image of the devil prevails in cinema; many movies have shattered the typical Dante’s Inferno image of the devil by featuring sophisticated, swanky, gregariously jubilant characters who are downright attractive. Some were incredibly sexy, like Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled, and others were pretty adorable, like George Burns in Oh God! You Devil. These are the best actors who played the devil character with charm and finesse.
Updated on September 30th, 2023, by Federico Furzan: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
10 Harvey Keitel
Little Nicky (2000)
It’s quite unfair to assume that all demons are cynical, crafty, and bloodthirsty. Some, especially Satan in Little Nicky, struggle with their hellish issues and politics and are strangely funny and entertaining. Harvey Keitel, the prized character actor, plays a 10,000-year-reigning Satan on the verge of retirement, contemplating who will be his next successor in Hell among his three mischievously divergent sons.
Little Nicky is what happens when a comic fairytale is set in hell, starring demons. It’s quirky, funny, unrealistic, and extremely amusing, with the inimitable Harvey Keitel playing a disdained father with issues. The film opens with Keitel’s Satan getting done with torturing a fictional Adolf Hitler, who’s been perpetually held in the chamber of Satan for his devious acts on earth. With the classic devil-pointed ears and his trademark goatee, Keitel presents the unplumbed side of Satan with humility and ease but also makes sure to explore the patriarchal side of the monster with a sense of satire and wit.
9 Peter Stormare
Interested in gothic horror tales? Constantine awaits you! While the critics were not very generous with the film, Peter Stormare surely grabbed attention for his vindictive, delirious attempts to crucify John Constantine (Keanu Reeves). Stormare in Constantine is a classic scornful Satan who gets resentful for granting a wish.
Although the film has many layers and sub-plots that provide great impetus for the action, the recurrence of demons throughout Constantine keeps the film engaging and exciting till the advent of Lucifer. He is a fine blend of a brittle monster reeking of indignation who is determined to seek revenge without flouting the laws of hell. Despite having a minimal appearance in the film, Peter Stormare’s Lucifer will have an everlasting impact on the audience as a beasty gangster-like monster who could’ve been a great addition to Goodfellas.
8 George Burns
Oh, God! You Devil (1984)
George Burns was an actor and comedian who rose to prominence before the era when social media or emerging movie sites were not so prevalent to extol his magnificent acting prowess, which took a big chunk of his deserving fame that was never paid its due. Most cinephiles still stutter when his name appears onscreen, which is quite unfortunate. The Academy Award Winner, also the third oldest Oscar-winning actor behind Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer, was famous for playing God in the classic Oh God trilogy, but gave an inimitable performance as Satan in the third film, as well.
The religious comedy trilogy is one among the gamut of portrayals enlivened by George Burns as an actor. In 1984’s Oh, God! You Devil, he claimed the other side of the table by playing God and Satan himself. In this underrated comic flick, we get to see an extremely ambitious musician who succumbs and sells his soul to Satan to kiss fame. As anticipated, things didn’t pan out as they should, which led to combat between Satan and the musician in the form of a classic poker game. In Oh, God! You Devil, Burns’ Satan was contagiously witty, grounded, and alternatively charming, which is hard to achieve considering the role he represented.
7 Gabriel Byrne
End of Days (1999)
Gabriel Byrne‘s unique role in End of Days is one of the most underrated on the list and probably the one that’s most grounded. Known simply as The Man, Satan is more talkative than usual in the Peter Hyams film that most people have forgotten to this point, even though it also features Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role. The film tells the story of a former detective who’s trying to protect a young woman from getting impregnated with the Antichrist’s son.
Byrne’s performance, as it usually happens with his roles, is contemplative and calm, a characteristic that feels completely believable for the angel that fell from Heaven. Unfortunately, critics didn’t think much of the performance, or the entire film in 1999.
6 Tim Curry
Legend, starring Tom Cruise, features a horn-protruding, bloodshot-eyed, scarlet-looking Lord of Monsters who snatches the whole limelight from other characters in this film directed by Ridley Scott. Tim Curry plays the role of the devilish beast known as Darkness, who captures the beauty and decides to marry her. He’s not aware of the lurking commoner protagonist who is secretly in love with the princess, and the rest is bonkers movie history.
What distinguishes Curry as the monster from the many supernatural creatures, goblins, unicorns, and extravagantly weird aspects is his indomitable performance, dressed to the nines as a scary Satan. There’s no ostentatious good-side angle to the monster, and that’s how the film and its version of Satan prevail over most others. Curry in Legend is truly evil, menacing, dark, and practically indestructible; his performance is what makes the film legendary. Given the option, the very different Director’s Cut is far superior.
5 Max von Sydow
Needful Things (1993)
Based on the Stephen King book of the same name, Needful Things features a great story whose absurdity becomes clear quickly, but we can’t help but think there’s a lot of realism to it. It tells the story of a quiet coastal town where everybody knows everybody. One day, a store opens. It’s called Needful Things and it seems to have something for everyone who steps inside. The store is owned and run by Leland Gaunt. Only Gaunt will give you that very prized item if you do something for him, and it usually involves harming someone else in town.
Of course, Gaunt is the greatest representation of evil. Played masterfully by Max von Sydow, the man indulges while wreaking havoc on Castle Rock, Maine. And yes, he drives a cool black car that’s the greatest ride the devil ever had when being part of this realm.
4 Viggo Mortensen
The Prophecy (1995)
“Captain Fantastic” is a familiar man with unfamiliar roles in a myriad of films before he attained prominence. The Prophecy, starring a great Christopher Walken as the angel Gabriel and Viggo Mortensen as the devil, is an underrated film that often subverts the typical perceptions of God and the devil.
Mortensen’s Lucifer despises God and his preachings and secretly desires to upset the balance of good and evil. His character is full of spite, venomous brewing, and absolute hate against humans and the creator. He’s a demon who is extremely concerned about the rules, principles, and imbalance of hell and heaven, which he tries to prevent. His character in the film cajoles us to root for the devil because, in the end, he is just doing his job.
3 Jack Nicholson
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
When it comes to big actors playing Satan, the last three on the list will definitely prove the point. In the case of The Witches of Eastwick, we have Jack Nicholson giving life to Hell’s landlord, just a bit more subtle at first. In the film, Nicholson’s Daryl Van Horne is womanizing and disgusting but somehow appeals to a group of women who have formed a coven.
He has powers alright, but they’re not effective enough when facing a group of spiteful pregnant witches. It’s one of Nicholson’s great shows in the last part of his career and made during his prime, back when he was always in the front line at the Oscars wearing his shades.
2 Robert De Niro
Angel Heart (1987)
One can’t talk about acting without mentioning Robert De Niro. Through the years, he has always challenged himself and has rarely failed to surprise. One of the greatest actors of his generation was a man of many faces, and the Devil was one. In Angel Heart, De Niro plays Louis Cyphre (a rather on-the-nose name that sounds like ‘Lucifer’), who contacts a detective to hunt down the infamous singer, Johnny Favorite.
De Niro dons the role with a well-trimmed beard, sophisticated attire, and a subtle politesse buttered with mysterious eyes. If anyone deserves more applause for the role, it’s the casting director who got De Niro to play the devil while the actor was in his prime. As the screenplay unveils mystic secrets, Cyphre seeps into the heads of the audience, taking the throttle in his hands.
1 Al Pacino
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Not to be undone, Al Pacino donned his own devil’s costume. Al Pacino’s portrayal in The Devil’s Advocate is some exemplary alchemy of evilness and charm. He treats the multi-faceted character with great detail and complexity as John Milton (in a reference to Paradise Lost), the head of a law firm in New York that recently hired a gifted defense attorney from Florida played by Keanu Reeves. As John Milton, Pacino succeeds triumphantly in tantalizing the audience with his capricious actions and gregarious nature that sets him apart from the rest of the cast.
His Satan character goes against all the presupposed stereotypes of a devil with horns and daggers; he is beguiling, salacious, magisterial, and scrupulous, and appears as a formidable fatherly figure who mastered the art of being opaque and permeable at the same time. Also, this successful supernatural thriller entertains a massive plot twist which makes it worth watching twice.