And while there have always been movie adaptations of these tales, cinema has created some of the most visceral and original stories on the matter. Whether it be Al Pacino chewing the scenery as John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate or Orson Welles’ final performance in The Transformers: The Movie, these are the best movies that really teach us what’s at stake when we make deals with the devil.
Would you make a deal with the devil if he was also your lawyer? How about your dad? That’s essentially the premise of 1997’s supernatural courtroom thriller The Devil’s Advocate: Satan is Al Pacino going by John Milton, a partner of a top New York law firm in a movie that is just about as subtle as 90s-era Pacino himself. Or naming a character “John Milton.”
A young Florida defense attorney, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves, committing to an accent and not much else) takes the Faustian job offer, moving his wife to New York and into Milton’s Manhattan high-rise. When he finds himself defending a whole slew of hell-bound humans, Kevin learns he himself is both the Antichrist and first in line to take over the firm. Nepotism, huh?
Any job involves a contract of some kind, so even in this gig economy, the devil can make you pay. In this 1987 supernatural neo-noir, Robert DeNiro and his pointy goatee are Louis Cyphre, a very normal human man with long fingernails and a gross egg fetish. Cyphre hires a private detective named Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to track down Johnny Favorite, a singer who skipped town.
Angel follows the trail down to New Orleans, where he learns the crooner’s deal with Cyphre was of the soul-selling variety. Clues the sleuth missed along the way? Satanic rituals, walls that bleed during lovemaking, death by gumbo and the fact that his employer is named “Louis Cypher.”
Sometimes deals with the devil are of the material variety. Out of all the Stephen King cinematic, Needful Things isn’t quite The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s got a catchy premise. The devil arrives in Castle Rock, Maine, in the form of Leland Gaunt (Max von Sydow), an old man with an antique store with strange stock.
Gaunt offers Castle Rock’s residents objects that correlate to some deeply personal, unfilled need: a rare baseball card, a first edition of Treasure Island, a very cool jacket, etc. Gaunt only asks his customers to play little pranks on their neighbors in exchange, which escalate quickly. It’s the Satanic version of “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” where the answer is always “pet disembowelment and straight-up murder.”
In Roman Polanski’s classic horror film, Mia Farrow plays Rosemary, a young mother-to-be who discovers what real New Yorkers already know: if you want a brownstone with Central Park views, it’ll cost you your first-born child. The “deal with the devil” here isn’t made by Rosemary, but her wannabe actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes).
In exchange for rent-controlled views and a successful acting career, Guy allows his new occult neighbors full access to his wife’s womb. Rosemary soon figures out something is not all right, but gaslighting a hysterical pregnant woman who believes she’s carrying Satan’s spawn doesn’t exactly require supernatural interference.
What lengths would you go to keep something terrible happening from someone you love? While not the devil per say, Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is as close as you’re going to get in the Star Wars canon. From A New Hope to Return of the Jedi, he’s the embodiment of the darkness trying to seduce a fresh-faced Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) into using the Force for evil, like his father, Darth Vader, before him.
But before he was emperor, Palpatine was just a middle-aged Galactic Senator who just happened to be really good at dealmaking, like Frank Underwood in outer space. In the prequels, he convinces a young Jedi-to-be to become a Sith Lord in order to prevent his wife’s death during childbirth. (She dies anyway.) That Sith Lord’s name? Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader.
Many cultures and religions have a version of “the devil and the fool” story; the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned to Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for both roles. After being defeated in Thor, the peeved god makes a deal with an agent of Thanos’ to take over Earth. All Loki has to do is get the Tesseract, which is where the events of the first Avengers movie begin.
Over the course of the MCU films, Loki becomes less evil and more just a loveable scamp…who is then murdered by Thanos in Infinity War. But thankfully he’s also still alive, thanks to the time-traveling ret-con of Avengers: Endgame and the necessity of Loki-centric programming to launch Disney+.
Phantom of the Paradise
“Would you sell your soul for rock and roll?” That is literally the tagline for Brian De Palma’s on-the-nose cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, which reimagines both Phantom of the Opera and Faust as a 70s rock opera horror comedy. Record producer Swan (Paul Williams), sells his soul to Satan and Kanye-like status and eternal middle-age.
When singer/songwriter William Leach tries to show Swan his latest opus, he’s sent to prison and turned into a terrifying monster. Hiding in the producer’s new concert hall, Swan forces Leach to produce songs for a woman named Phoenix (Jessica Harper) and an androgynous, sparkle-goth rockstar named Beef. Leach acts out, murdering a bunch to the tune of his own hit songs.
If you want to trade your creativity and talent for money and fame, there’s no better place than Hollywood. barton Fink (John Turturro)–the titular antihero of 1991s Joel and Ethan Coen’s film set in the early 40s–is but a cynical New York playwright who takes up a producer’s offer to come write film scripts for $1,000 a week, and befriends a friendly devil of a neighbor along the way.
Fink finds himself stuck with a bad case of writers’ block, allowing another hotel resident, traveling salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) into his life to listen to him kvetch. Hollywood does become very hellish for Fink, who is framed, fired and then on-fire, as Meadows turns out to be a serial killer and arsonist, as well as a very good listener.
Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
While generally a bad idea, sometimes deals with the devil can work out in your favor, depending on which devil you get and what kind of mood he’s in that day. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is best remembered as being the last performance of Heath Ledger, probably because explaining the plot of a Terry Gilliam movie is a Sisyphean task.
The leader of traveling dance troupe, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits), promising his daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for immortality and a magic mirror. The mirror transports people to a dream world wherein they choose between blissful ignorance or self-aware enlightenment. The devil eventually begs to renegotiate terms, as confused by all this as the rest of us.
Saving a loved one from eternal damnation is a noble and oft-used reason for invoking the devil. In this 1997 Disney adaptation of Greecian myth, a young Hercules (Tate Donovan) is just your average teenager who happens to have superhuman strength because, well, technically he’s a god. After falling in love with Hades’ double-agent Megara, Hercules willingly forgoes his powers in exchange for her safety.
This allows Hades to conquer the Old Gods by releasing the ancient Titans, but during the melee, Meg is crushed by a pillar. Powered-up, Hercules heads to the underworld to broker a second deal, trading his life for Meg’s. Instead of trying to find a loophole, Hercules just punches his uncle so hard he flies into the River Styx and drowns. Problem solved.
Another double-devil deal! Detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has been able to see angels and demons his entire life, most of which was spent in fear of damnation thanks to an early suicide attempt. After finding out he has terminal lung cancer, Constantine tries to win over God’s favor by performing exorcisms, only to be told that it isn’t enough to get him into Heaven, since he’s doing it for purely selfish reasons.
Constantine cuts a deal with the Devil (Peter Stormare) instead, offering up intel about Satan’s son’s plan to usurp his father in Hell. Later, he strikes another bargain: to trade his soul for an innocent person’s trapped in Hell. It’s a trick – Constantine’s trade counts as a selfless act, so the Devil can’t claim him. An understandably irritated Satan then cures Constantine of his cancer, in the hopes that a longer lifespan will cause the detective to damn himself once again.
Harold Ramis’ 2000 remake paired Brendan Fraser with Elizabeth Hurley as Satan. This Bedazzled doubles down on the pratfall, hijinks and toilet humor while somehow managing to be only half as funny. Just as in the original, Fraser’s character Elliot makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for seven wishes.
But Elliot is a dope who just keeps plugging along like he’s never seen Aladdin, with each wish just a variation on the “fame and fortune” concept. However, Elliot’s final wish is a selfless one, which voids the contract. He goes back to his terrible life, doesn’t get the girl, but remains friends with Hot Lady Devil. Everyone wins?
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Music and freedom have their costs, at least in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? In the Coen brothers’ take on The Odyssey, which follows three escaped convicts (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) as they run from the law and try to recover some buried loot. Along the way, the man characters meet Tommy Johnson, a young black man who sold his soul to the devil for musical abilities.
Johnson’s description of Satan’s “big empty eyes” are a clear reference to Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen), who wears a pair of mirrored sunglasses that are often seen reflecting licks of flames. Cooley seeks to claim the “souls” of the three escaped convicts, so you get two times the devilin’ for the price of one.
Before limitless streaming content, would you chance your soul for endless entertainment? Stay Tuned is a strange, dark comedy full of meta-pop culture references that tries to imagine the answer. When a cable guy named Spike (Jeffrey Jones) offers 666 stations of free cable to John Ritter and Mork and Mindy’s Pam Dawber, they soon find themselves sucked through the screen and forced to survive Satanic parodies of their favorite shows.
It’s called Hellavision, and the programming lineup includes Northern OverExposure, Facts of Life Support and, to the horror of Ritter’s character, Three’s Company. For a film released in 1992, Stay Tuned feels extremely relevant today, when trying to keep up with the amount of content on offer is enough to cause anxiety attacks without the help of Beelzebub.
Would you sign away your name to a goat named Black Philip for a chance to live, as he says in Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut film The Witch, “deliciously?” In the story, a family of early American settlers are cast out of their Puritan village and end up living right on the cusp of humanity and deep, dark woods. When their baby goes missing, they succumb to true Satanic panic, convinced the fault lies with the devil or one of his female followers.
The beauty of The Witch is its ambiguity: the insurmountably harsh living conditions, along with this family’s literal interpretation of the Bible, could have just as easily caused the events of the film. Eldest daughter and final girl (Anya Taylor-Joy) gladly takes up Black Philips’ offer for a life of (relative) luxury and butter-tasting.
Witches of Eastwick
Divorce, death and desertion have left Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon without husbands in a religious town that does not tolerate unmarried 30-somethings in Witches of Eastwick. Getting witchy one night, the women pray for the perfect man, and thank the dark lord, in blows their savior, Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson).
The trio are soon shacked up in Horne’s palatial estate, sharing the love and revenge that only a rich, horny devil can provide. Still, having powers isn’t the same thing as being empowered, and after deciding they no longer want to live under the house rules of 50 Shades of Hades, the coven blows Horne out of town by using his own dark magic against him.
There’s no price you can put on being a movie star…at least no earthly one. In 2014’s Starry Eyes, a young wannabe actress Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) longs for her one shot at glamour, but is stuck in a rut at a sleazy fast food job, with a bunch of undermining hipster friends waiting at home.
So when an old Hollywood production company, Astraeus Pictures, gives Sarah a callback for the lead role in a new horror film, The Silver Scream, she’ll do anything to get the part. But transforming herself into Astraeus’ new starlet means Sarah’s got to give more than just her own blood, sweat and tears. She murders all of her friends, is what we’re saying.
Surely the winning strategy of the Patriots, Damn Yankees–the 1958 Warner Brothers feature based on a Broadway musical–tells a truly timeless story: an aging fan makes a deal with a conman so his guys can win the pennant back from the titular baseball team.
Even the conman (who yes, obviously is the devil) is underwhelmed and offers a better deal – he’ll make the fan into his team’s star player, so he can personally lead his boys to the playoffs himself. If you can stand Damn Yankees’ hokey music, there’s a pretty sweet Mickey Mantle cameo in the third act.
The Devil With Hitler
Can even the devil tempt Adolf Hitler into being a little nicer? That’s the premise of 1942’s propaganda film, The Devil With Hitler, which hit theaters while the Fuhrer was still alive. Raked over the proverbial coal by Hell’s board of directors, the Devil risks being replaced by the leader of the Third Reich unless he can make the man just slightly less evil.
Disguised as Hitler’s new butler, hilarity ensues when the devil, Mussolini and the Japanese show up simultaneously. Bombs are placed under pillows, life insurance policies are taken out, and eventually, Satan convinces Hitler to pardon just one person, allowing him to keep his job. On arrival in Hell, Adolf gets the personal touch from his old employee.
The O.G. tale of devil bargains, Christoper Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is pretty cautionary in its takeaway: like Vegas casinos, the devil always wins. Richard Burton directed himself for the 1967 filmed stage production as a 16th-century scholar who trades his immortal soul for 24 years of hedonism and pleasure.
Sure, the doctor does all kinds of wild stuff like become invisible, insult the Pope, and bone a silent Helen of Troy (played by Elizabeth Taylor, Burton’s IRL Faustian bargain), but in a refreshing lack of a plot twist, once the 24 years are up, Faustus goes directly to hell. Sometimes a deal’s a deal.
After you die, at what lengths would you go to get back to Earth? As early as Dante’s Inferno, the answer has always involved some kind of hellish odyssey. In Spawn, based off the Todd McFarlane comics, in exchange for leading the army of darkness to Armageddon, former black ops agent Al Simmons (Michael Jai White) gets to return to Earth, where he immediately defects to fight for the good guys.
Spawn is mostly remembered today for John Leguizamo’s bizarre dedication to his role as The Violator, a creepy hell-clown from a comic book movie. Not even Satan himself would be as baroque as to demand that the actor eat live maggots on set, but Leguizamo absolutely did that anyway.
Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny
Musician-comedians Jack Black and Kyle Glass star as themselves in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, a fictitious biopic of their origin story. Starting out as loser roommates, JB (Black) lays out a plan to steal a guitar pick made from a piece of Satan’s tooth which allows its holder to shred like an epic rock god.
During a battle of the bands at the local bar, the duo fight over the pic, breaking it in half and revealing the bar owner to be Satan himself (Dave Grohl). Tenacious D challenge him to a rock battle, forgetting that rock and roll is the devil’s music. Tenacious D earn their names by losing the battle but winning the war, sending the devil back to hell where at least he won’t need any more dental work.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Sometimes Satan is too busy to handle every request, which is when a giant, blood-thirsty Venus flytrap from outer space can come in handy. When people hear Little Shop of Horrors, they’re usually thinking about the Frank Oz musical remake from the 80s, starring Rick Moranis as wimpy floral assistant Seymour Krelborn.
Krelborn falls under the spell of his strange and unusual talking plant Audrey II, named after his co-worker and crush (Ellen Greene). The vegetation promises fame, glory and Audrey’s affection in exchange for turning Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin) into compost. Audrey II convinces Seymour to feed him more and more people–almost cannibalizing its namesake–before the schmuck hacks it to pieces.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
The Pirates of the Caribbean movies introduce the concept of a nautical underworld – an entire universe of ocean ghosts, lorded over by the nautical Devil himself, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). Davy Jones is the antagonist throughout the second and third film of the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, and he’s in the habit of making Faustian bargains with sailors on the brink of death, tricking them into joining his immortal crew for all eternity.
Despite being the main baddie of the first film, Hector Barbossa (Geoffery Rush) becomes a team player in an effort to save Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Sparrow had previously made a deal with Jones to raise his ship from the ocean’s dregs, and Jones always comes to collect, unleashing the monstrous Kraken on Sparrow to balance his soul ledger.
If you’re going the Faust-ian wish route, you might as well get your soul’s worth and aim high. There are two versions of Bedazzled, a story about a young loser who trades his soul to the devil in exchange for seven wishes. The original featured Dudley Moore as a cook named Stanley Donen with Peter Cook co-starring as an exceedingly British Satan.
Stanley makes his seventh wish inadvertently and the Devil wins fair and square. However, Bezelebub takes pity on Stanley and lets him out of the contract, because apparently Hell reached its quota of souls for the month and doesn’t need one more idiot.
Like Constantine and Spawn, Ghost Rider is yet a third comic book movie adaptation about a cynical antihero doomed to help bring about the Apocalypse after selling his soul. Ghost Rider manages to differentiate itself by hiring Nicolas Cage to play Johnny Blaze, AKA Nicolas Cage with his head on fire.
Having already offered his soul to Mephistopheles, stuntman Johnny Blaze is caught in the middle of a family feud when the devil’s son Blackheart attempts a hostile takeover of the upcoming apocalypse. Realizing he’s sounding a LOT like the plot of Constantine, Blaze ultimately decides he’d rather spend eternity as a motorcycle-riding fire hazard than become human again, making devils who created him stay in hell where they belong.
If kinky torture is your thing, beware the Cenobites of Hellraiser. The most Cliver Barker-y of Clive Barker’s films, the series was inspired by the writer/director’s visits to New York and Amsterdam S&M clubs. This makes total sense, as the franchise concerns a race of demons who promise carnal pleasures in the form of extreme sadomasochistic torture.
Pinhead and the gang are introduced via a puzzle box, that, once solved, allow you to enter a realm where the Cenobites will spend eternity flaying you alive. Who would even want this? In the original, it’s a strung-out maniac who murders his own brother and makes a suit out of his skin..so obviously, not the best decision-maker in the household.
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Roger Corman’s 1960s black and white Little Shop of Horrors is often eclipsed by Oz’s version, but that was actually adapted from a Broadway musical based on Corman’s film. And that’s not the only reason OG Little Shop deserves cult classic status of its very own.
The original tells essentially the same story, but features a much darker ending: the plant ultimately eats Audrey and Seymour, after which eager opportunists start selling spores of Audrey II to every household in America, unwittingly carrying out the alien’s plan to use humanity as mulch. This version also features a cameo from a very young Jack Nicholson making some bold vocal choices.
Djinns – evil genies – aren’t often found in current pop culture tropes, so to grasp the concept behind the Wes Craven-produced Wishmaster franchise, just think about that part in Aladdin when Jafar wishes himself into an all-powerful being who immediately gets sucked into a lamp because he didn’t stop and think about proper phrasing.
When smarmy, art collecting Robert Englund accidentally releases an evil Djinn in 90s Los Angeles, it goes on a spree, collecting human souls in a quest for world domination. But since it can only draw power from wishes, the Djinn has to wait for someone to vocally want for something, and then Monkey’s Paw the hell out. (Want to be beautiful forever? Poof, you’re a mannequin!) The devil is in the details, after all.
The Transformers: The Movie
What’s that you say? Robots don’t have souls? Well, buckle up, because The Transformers: The Movie found a way to make Faustian bargains more than meets the eye. The space robot equivalent of Satan known as Unicron (Orson Welles in his final role), is a sentient, cannibalizing cyber-planet that pulls a fast one on a defeated Megatron. He offers to resurrect the dying Decepticon commander in a new, more powerful body, in exchange for tracking down a special crystal matrix.
Megatron wakes up in the new and improved form of Galvatron, and goes off to destroy all the Autobots like he was planning to do in the first place. Ultimately, Galvatron and Unicron are defeated and while the Autobots celebrate, we pan out to see the decapitated head of Unicron orbiting the stars.
So maybe the moon is Satan’s head, forever reminding other deities not to make bargains with unqualified despots?