The Prince of Dimness
End of Days' hapless Satan, and other millennial movie stupidity.
What an apocalypse we're having! First a young hairdresser in Stigmata collapses on a crowded dance floor as an invisible crown of thorns is pounded into her head. Then a lurching demon made of excrement materializes out of an overflowing toilet bowl in Dogma. And now, just in time to prove that the end of the millennium will indeed bring about the destruction of all movie logic, we have End of Days, in which Satan pauses by a stoop, unzips his pants, and lets flow a meandering stream of flammable urine. As Casper Van Dien puts it rather succinctly in The Omega Code, "Religion would have us believe there are demons fighting and battling over our souls. But who needs that?"
And anyway, these millennial demons are a particularly clumsy lot, far less canny and elegant than, say, Rosemary's Baby's John Cassavetes, whose earthly weapon of choice was spiked chocolate mousse. In The Omega Code, for instance, Michael York's Antichrist has seeming command of all the law enforcement personnel in the world, but none of them can locate Casper Van Dien--playing a New Age guru who has run off with a CD that will unlock "the genetic code of the universe"--as he flees conspicuously on foot through the empty Los Angeles streets in the dead of night. The Forces of Darkness are so powerless that they're reduced to hanging around their headquarters in Rome, listening to the befuddled Los Angeles cops on a police scanner.
I n keeping with our apostate times, all these movies feature as their protagonist a faith-challenged Chosen One. In The Omega Code, Van Dien's character, "the world-famous globe-trotting Dr. Gillen Lane," cringes when somebody sings "Jesus Loves Me." "My mother used to sing me that song," he explains, "but you know what? She died in a tragic car accident when I was 10 years old." In Stigmata, Patricia Arquette plays a frenetic party girl, who, of all the people in the world, is judged to be the best candidate for mouthing lost Aramaic scriptures as unseen nails are hammered into her appendages. ("You don't get it, do you?" she yells at a priest during a lull in these proceedings, "I have fucking holes through my wrists!") Linda Fiorentino, in Dogma, has lost her faith over her inability to conceive, while Arnold Schwarzenegger, in End of Days, is so distressed over the murders of his wife and daughter that he is reduced to making smoothies out of Pepto-Bismol and leftover pizza.
OK, God works in mysterious ways, but it is the opinion of this column that screenwriters should not. There is a big difference between divine obfuscation and sloppy thinking. In Stigmata, for instance, an unquiet dead priest is desperate to notify the world of a suppressed "fifth gospel," which, when revealed, will expose the greed and false pretenses of the Roman Catholic church. This restless spirit has the power to cause steam vents to erupt and windows to explode in showers of glass. He can give Patricia Arquette the stigmata and make her eyes turn red and have her speak in a man's voice in ancient languages and send her spiraling aloft in her apartment until she ends up crucified in midair. What he can't do, though, is just come out and say what's on his mind.
H is poor communication skills are mirrored by the geographically impaired Satan of End of Days. It is the murky premise of this movie that evil is not quite as renewable a resource as is commonly believed. In order for the Dark Angel to continue his important work in human affairs, he must appear on Earth every thousand years to impregnate a young woman. In End of Days the devil is first seen as a transparent watery wrinkle that rises out of a manhole and sashays into the men's room of a restaurant, whereupon it makes a forcible entry into the body of a prominent investment banker played by Gabriel Byrne.
Wearing his new body, Satan sets forth in search of the young woman with whom he must "breed" by the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. The woman's name is Christine York, and she was chosen for this gruesome task on the day of her birth 20 years earlier, when she was seized from her mother's arms in the hospital by a satanic nurse and given a quickie baptism with rattlesnake blood. Christine is also being hunted by an ecclesiastical hit squad named the Vatican Knights, which wants to drive a stake through her heart before she can mate with Satan, and by Schwarzenegger's Jericho Cane, who just wants to save her. In search of his beloved, Satan takes time to visit a priest in his hospital room. The priest is named Thomas Aquinas--not, disappointingly, the reincarnated author of Summa Theologica but some old geezer who has cut out his own tongue and put it in a mayonnaise jar for reasons that it would take a second viewing of End of Days for me to figure out. (Not in this millennium!)
Working nimbly, Satan carves up this guy's torso with arcane writing and, using scalpels and scissors and other handy hospital accessories, crucifies him on the ceiling. (How strong is that acoustic tile, anyway?) One of the phrases on poor Aquinas' body is "Christ in New York," which Jericho, coming upon the corpse shortly thereafter, quickly deciphers to mean "Christine York," the name of the mother-to-be. Two problems: 1) nobody's that good at hermeneutics; and 2) why would the archfiend, who's in a big hurry to consummate his relationship with Christine before the ball drops in Times Square, interrupt his mission to leave clues for his enemies?
S atan is good at many things in this movie. He can pee gasoline, walk through fire, induce visions, and even resurrect the dead, but when it comes to the simple task of locating Christine--which everyone else seems to be able to do with relative ease--he's so helpless he has to break into Jericho's apartment and badger him for her whereabouts.
It's no wonder that Good triumphs over Evil, because Satan makes a lot of bad choices in this movie. Dogma at least has some fun with the idea that God is really Alanis Morissette, and Michael York in The Omega Code is as cheerful an antichrist as one could wish for, but in End of Days when Satan is finally revealed in his true form, erupting out of the floor of a cathedral to confront Schwarzenegger, guess what he is. A giant frustrated-looking bat that roars and slobbers and flails its wings around like a baby bird that's not ready to leave the nest. With a hopeless bod like that, it's no surprise that the devil would rather look like Gabriel Byrne. And if movies get any stupider the next millennium, the End of Days can't come soon enough for me.
Stephen Harrigan's latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton, was published by Knopf in 2011 and recently issued in paperback by Vintage.
Stills from: End of Days by Zade Rosenthal/Universal Pictures/Reuters; Stigmata, Dogma, and The Omega Code from the Everett Collection.