Hollywood sells its soul to the Devil for the sake of a holiday hit

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AT THE close of the old millennium and the dawn of the new, the Devil is stalking the Earth. At least, he features prominently in a cluster of new American films that portray Lucifer at large, generally in pursuit of the souls of the good and frequently planning to bring about the end of time.

In the action film End of Days, the Devil, played as a businessman in an overcoat by Gabriel Byrne, is seeking a woman with whom to copulate before the end of the millennium. Only Arnold Schwarzenegger stands in his way. The film's images and special effects are suitably powerful - monsters rise from the rubble of churches and blood has no problem bursting into flames.

In Stigmata, which was number one at the American box office in the summer, Byrne shows up again, this time as an agent of the Vatican investigating a wave of demonic possessions. Like End of Days, it is full of devilish images, weird visions and mutilations, but plainly has a weak theological base. The stigmata of the title are depicted as terrible lacerations from Hell rather than signs of religious transcendence. And the stigmata can be caught from objects, as if they were germs. Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church in America has condemned it as rubbish.

But nobody is criticising Hollywood for a lack of enthusiasm for its subject.

This latest revival of the "devil" genre kicked off last year with The Devil's Advocate, in which Al Pacino played a New York lawyer named John Milton who is in fact Satan on a mission to corrupt the mortal soul of Keanu Reeves.

This was evil battling against good in more traditional form - the Reeves character, a young lawyer called Kevin Lomax, is tempted by a wonderful job and fabulous riches. No sooner has his Faustian pact been made than his wife starts to become unhinged and untold problems emerge. Christopher Marlowe would have recognised the plot.

Actors with spooky looks have been at a premium. Johnny Depp, for instance, has appeared in two films with something of the Devil about them. In The Astronaut's Wife, a "psychological horror" story, he plays an astronaut who has become weird, perhaps possessed, while on a journey in space. Back on Earth, his wife becomes pregnant with twins who might bring about the end of humanity.

Roman Polanski has returned to the subject of the Devil for the first time since he made Rosemary's Baby 30 years ago. Shortly after the film was completed, Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson's "family", a satanic cult.

The Ninth Gate, a "comic fantasy thriller", has Depp in an acclaimed performance as an antiquarian book dealer hired to track down satanic books for a wealthy client.

The Devil appears in the form of an attractive young woman, played by Polanksi's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, who gave birth to their son, Elvis Polanski, just before the film was made.

In Lost Souls, Winona Ryder plays a devout Christian uncovering a conspiracy to allow the Devil to take over the Earth. The Omega Code has Michael York playing Satan as a charismatic head of the European Union in a film about the end of the world, and funded by Christian fundamentalists.