When it’s on: Thursday, 26 March (9.00 pm)
Channel: Horror Channel
In an effort to properly research The Devil Rides Out, one of the jewels in the crown of Hammer Studios, rightly or wrongly, and a first visitation from this site to the Horror Channel, which is now available on Freeview, I went back to the source and read Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.
I recall seeing rows of Wheatley’s paperbacks on my parents’ bookshelves as a child, usually with the lurid cover art featuring scantily clad women cavorting around a stern looking goat-man. This no doubt is a reflection on the author’s massive popularity, which lasted into the late 1960s, and reading The Devil Rides Out now, I can see why that must have been the case. Essentially, it’s a bit like Agatha Christie, replacing murders for Occultism, but still featuring upper class heroes and villains and presenting the inter-war years as a kind of Home Counties arcadia where society was deferential, everyone knew their place and the only thing wrong was those damned Devil worshippers. I enjoyed it immensely, racing through the novel in a few days thanks to some brisk pacing and a genuine atmosphere of unease created by Wheatley. There’s an argument for saying it’s an updated Dracula, which I get. Critics pointed out the long periods of exposition, endless scenes of two posho’s discussing the history and nature of Satanism; personally I found all this to be quite riveting. I learned, for instance, that World War One didn’t come about as a consequence of the collapsing Great Powers system of diplomacy, but because Grigory Rasputin used an arcane talisman to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was also some love for the Swastika, rightly cited as an ancient good luck charm before it was appropriated by the Nazis. Understandably, the Swastika does not put in an appearance within the film.
It was a most entertaining read, though I could tell that with novels like Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and the subsequent film adaptation, bringing tales of Devil worship firmly into the modern world, time was up for Wheatley’s cognac-quaffing heroes. There’s talk even now of further reworkings for the screen, both large and small, and I wonder how that would work. When I read a book, I try and visualise the action, imagining how it would play; it’s just something I’ve always done, and try as I might there seemed to be too many good reasons to forget revisiting these old adventures and let them fade into memory.
It was a different story in the 1960s, when Wheatley was still a bestselling author and had a good friend in Christopher Lee, one of Hammer’s main stars. The studio had owned the rights to The Devil Rides Out for some time and submitted a draft screenplay to the censors in 1962, only to be told in no uncertain terms that Satanism was not an appropriate subject for the movies. Later in the decade, restrictions were lifting (though nothing like to the extent they would later) and the project was revisited. Hammer put a lot of money behind their adaptation, recruiting the services of their A-list director, Terence Fisher, placing Lee in the starring role and commissioning no less a figure than Richard Matheson to update the script. The legendary writer took the hatchet to Wheatley’s book, chopping much of the Occult-related dialogue but otherwise turning in a treatment that was rather faithful, even keeping certain lines intact – ‘You fool! I’d rather see you dead than meddling with black magic!’ might sound a bit laughable now, but it was powerful stuff back in the day, especially when delivered with Lee’s baritone voice.
The result was a somewhat refreshing change from the endless Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy sequels, made to order but working as crowd pleasers rather than offering anything new. Even an old Hammer apologist like me can look back with a furtive wince at yet another Dracula flick in which the Count goes through the motions, Lee acting almost from a horizontal position as he found the business of donning the fangs to be increasingly tiresome. There’s none of that here, Lee in lithe, commanding form as the Duc de Richleau, an amateur expert in black magic who realises quickly that one of his best friends has succumbed to a circle of Devil worshippers. Alongside Rex (Leon Greene), de Richleau works hard to keep Simon (Patrick Mower) on the side of good. But he’s made powerful enemies, none more than Mocata (Charles Gray), Satan’s High Priest, who’ll stop at nothing to ‘baptise’ Simon and the willowy Tanith (Niké Arrighi), for whom Rex harbours romantic feelings.
The film, set in the late 1920s and featuring a fine convoy of vintage cars, turns into a cat and mouse effort as the Duc and his friends try and get the better of Mocata, who can command all manner of dark forces to work for him. This culminates in a brilliant scene where the Duc, Simon and two further friends (played by Paul Eddington and Sarah Lawson) are at siege, trapped in the library and protected only by a pentagram chalked on the wooden flooring, as Mocata sends vision after vision to terrorise them into submitting. The special effects of the giant tarantula and later the angel of death riding into the room look tame now, but the build-up to their appearance is taut and terrifying, punctuated by long silences and shadows creeping across the walls. Lee’s character is superb, feeling every ounce of fear that the film is trying to convey and trying to maintain a sense of authority.
Despite Lee’s excellent performance, he’s matched by Gray as Mocata. Many times in his film appearances, particularly in the limp Diamonds are Forever, Gray had a tendency to descend into campness, but here the role is played completely straight, the actor channelling both Mocata’s latent evil and his lazy charm, which works really well, even if he doesn’t look much like the bulbous fallen Priest who appears in the book. When Mocata visits Lawson’s character to demand the return of Simon and is made to leave, he pauses long enough to say ‘I shall not be back – but something will’, the malice dripping with relish from his tongue. Mostly, it comes from the eyes, Fisher doing a great job of emphasising the icy blue in Gray’s eyes to suggest a constant power of hypnosis and persuasion.
Over the years, The Devil Rides Out has dated. Arguably, it already appeared so at the time of its release, coming out in the same year as the contemporary Rosemary’s Baby, the latter holding back none of the nudity or blood where Fisher’s work shows restraint. No question about it, Polanski’s film is better, delivering more effectively on unsettling chills, whilst The Devil Rides Out’s period setting gives it the feel of something more suited to the past. And yet it was a daring move by Hammer, a fine effort and an important change in direction at a time when the studio itself was starting to look out of step with audience tastes, and for that it deserves some appreciation. The only sad postscript is that they didn’t return to Wheatley until eight years later and 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter, too late to save the studio and a mixed, unhappy effort for all concerned.
The Devil Rides Out: ****