A&E's long running Biography program has proven to be a popular and long running series thanks to its interesting choice of celebrity and historical subjects. Interesting then, that for one episode in particular they would choose to examine the 'life and times' of Satan himself. Rather than debate the existence of the Devil, the program explores a portion of Satan's history and origins - at least in so far as we can tell.
The first section explains the origins of the Devil and then how Satan tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and how that act in turn allowed him to set his sights on the rest of mankind. We learn of his ability to change his shape and appearance and how initially, before the advent of medicine and legitimate scientific research, the Devil was believed to be the sole cause of sickness, bad weather conditions and disasters and poverty. The first part of this chapter basically explains how early civilization believed the Devil just more or less messed around with us because that was how he got his evil kicks. From there we learn how more enlightened individuals soon determined that Satan was more into corrupting souls and tempting men into doing their own evil deeds, rather than doing them himself. From here we learn how various people made deals with the devil in order to further their own agendas or to gain powers.
From there we learn about how there was a shift in thinking with certain scholars that portrayed the Devil to be a rebel fighting the system rather than an evil entity. Dealing with the Devil is not seen as more of a worthy challenge than anything else, while those horrible sicknesses and natural disasters that people used to think were caused by ol' Scratch are now being explained away by science.
Final portion of the documentary covers the 20th Century and it follows the history of Satan into the seventies (where for some strange reason it ends) beginning with society's notion of bringing back Satan as a cause for many of the catastrophic wars that broke out during this time in history. The sixties and seventies saw Satan become somewhat of a pop culture icon, appearing in films and books in various different forms. The Church of Satan was formed (look for a clip of Anton Levay and friends in action) and the rest is history.
Obviously covering the history of something as huge as 'the Devil' is a pretty mammoth task. A&E's examination of the origins of evil is a pretty decent crash course that covers most of the basics but little more. The decision to end the feature in the seventies is an odd one when you consider the mass hysteria caused by the devil's influence on eighties heavy metal and with rise in media coverage on subjects like murder and serial killers, you'd think that bringing things into the modern day would have been a no-brainer. That said, the documentary makes some interesting points about various aspects of the Devil's origins and various interpretations of his influence and power. The piece is limited in its scope in that it focuses solely on the Jewish-Christian interpretation of the Devil, but considering that's the intended point, it can't really be faulted for not thinking outside the box in that regard even if some cross-cultural comparisons would have made for some interesting food for thought. The show does an interesting and effective job of showing Satan's influence on western culture as well as detailing his religious significance by way of interviews with experts and scholarly types in addition to a few potentially less reliable subjects who claim to have come face to face with Satan himself. Whether or not these stories are true or not is certainly up for debate but they do make for interesting side notes in the bigger picture that this documentary paints.
The 1.33.1 fullframe presentation preserves the original aspect ratio from the program's television broadcast and the quality of the picture is quite good. Black levels are pretty solid and while there's a little bit of shimmer in the picture, there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or print damage. Detail in the foreground and the background is good though some of the archival clips are, understandably, not in the best of shape. All of the newer footage looks great, however, and there's nothing really worth complaining about here.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is primarily made up of narration and talking head interviews with the occasional bit of background music thrown over top for good measure. While this mix isn't going to rock your socks off of your feet, it sounds fine. Dialogue is clear, no problems with hiss or distortion to report. It's a simple mix but it is as effective as it needs to be.
In terms of supplements, there's only one but thankfully it's appropriate and interesting. A&E has piggybacked a second feature on this disc, Hell: The Devil's Domain, which is to the land of eternal damnation what Biography: Satan - Prince of Darkness is to its overlord. This is basically a documentary that details the history and the various interpretations of Hell, covering how those who have had near death experiences claim to have seen the place, how those who practice Satanism view the afterlife and their place in it, and other assorted details about the Devil's dark domain. It makes an interesting companion piece to the feature presentation.
Biography: Satan - Prince of Darkness is an interesting and well put together disc that is certainly worth a look for those with an interest in history, theology or both. That said, it isn't a disc you're likely to find yourself going back to that often as it doesn't go in-depth enough or cover as extensive a base as it needs to in order to work as resource material. Think of this as a primer on the basics of the Devil and his ways, worth seeing once, and therefore slapped with 'Rent It.'
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.