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A devilish return engagement to silver screen

The devil is back in Hollywood.

After a brief hiatus, Satan has re-emerged on the screen to embody evil and claim human souls.

With the recent release of The Devil's Advocate, Satan returns in the guise of John Milton (Al Pacino), a slick, high-powered lawyer who heads up a New York law firm and who proffers Manhattan-style temptations that test a young Florida couple's marriage. Critics have praised the film for its verbal wit and "devilish purgatory-minded decor" and found Pacino a "merry" Satan.

But it has been almost a decade since the devil's last memorable appearance in the movies. In Angel Heart he was a cunning, well-dressed businessman by the name of Louis Cypher (Robert DeNiro). And before that, Satan fathered a half-human child in Rosemary's Baby, inhabited a young girl's body in The Exorcist and formed an alliance with an ambassador's adopted son in The Omen.

No doubt about it, the Prince of Darkness is one of the movies' most popular icons. The devil's long-standing box office appeal _ The Exorcist earned $165-million in the United States alone _ is one reason studios are planning even more diabolical-themed movies.

Already in the works is a remake of Bedazzled, the British comedy in which a man is granted seven wishes in return for his soul. Another forthcoming in the Faustian tradition, Shadow of the Death, is about a struggling New York actor who strikes a deal with the devil.

But Fallen, starring Denzel Washington and Donald Sutherland, will take a more serious tone: a serial killer may be a victim of demonic possession.

What makes Satan so attractive _ if that's the right word _ depends upon who's looking at him. For some, the devil is alluring, forbidden and exotic; for others, he's repulsive.

"Satan is a potent symbol that has many facets for many different people," said Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University and author of The Origin of Satan.

According to Pagels, Satan personifies our worst enemies and yet represents our deepest desires. He can evoke a whole cluster of images, ranging from the two-horned, pitch-forked demon to a Mephistophelian fellow sporting a tuxedo and black goatee.

"Satan can touch on many different aspects of experience and fantasy," Pagels said. "But those who take Satan seriously are not just thinking of some kind of supernatural figure or cosmic force, but of people who embody such evil forces."

Pagels doesn't argue that Satan exists, but said she believes he has become a powerful interpretation for evil in other people.

"The world is divided between people on God's side and people on Satan's side," she said.

That division between good and evil is the basis for many popular movies featuring mad scientists, monsters, serial killers and psychos. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, these movies often show how good overcomes evil while reaffirming the power of a benevolent deity.

William Peter Blatty, Oscar-winning screenwriter and author of The Exorcist, agreed. He said movies about the devil can make a powerful statement about Christian faith.

"Possibly, the existence of a Satan, a big bad guy, would imply the existence of a good," said Blatty, the screenwriter and director of The Ninth Configuration and The Exorcist: III, two movies showing God's conquest over evil.

Blatty, a Catholic, said the idea of a devil is repellent, and he is not even sure Satan exists. But he thinks God's power over evil is a testament to religious faith.

"The Exorcist offered some evidence for the reality of spiritual forces and finally a God," he said. "The story helped people to believe in God."

But some folks think Hollywood should give the devil a fair shake. Members of the Temple of Set, a pre-Christian tradition that draws upon the ancient Egyptian force of darkness, loosely refer to themselves as Satanists.

"Satan has always been portrayed from a Judeo-Christian point of view," said Zeena Schreck, daughter of Anton LeVey, founder of the Church of Satan. Schreck is a priestess with the Temple of Set.

She said Hollywood's version of the devil is largely based upon medieval misconceptions. Rosemary's Baby, for example, featured an inverted crucifix and a scene with the devil having sex with the heavily sedated heroine.

"I think it's important to make the general public aware that there really are such people as Satanists, but not as they're portrayed in film. Most people feel that there are no such thing as real Satanists, so it's fair game to portray them in any light they choose," she says.

As for The Exorcist, Schreck said the film reinforces the Christian image of the devil as profane and violent. The movie-going public, in turn, expects the same destructive behavior from Satanists.

"We don't believe in possession. We don't believe in sacrifice," she said. "That film probably did the most long-lasting harm to legitimate Satanists because it set an example for films that followed."

Will The Devil's Advocate be any different? Schreck doesn't think so.

"Nobody could perceive that an accurate portrayal of Satan is not a horror story," she said.