30: THE DEVIL RIDES OUT/aka THE DEVIL’S BRIDE: 1968. Director: Terence Fisher. UK. Horror/Supernatural. Christopher Lee. Charles Gray. Niké Arrighi. Leon Greene. Patrick Mower. Sarah Lawson. Paul Eddington.
A Hammer Film Production, adapted by American author and screenwriter Richard Matheson (1926-2013), from the 1934 Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out. Screen time: 96 minutes. Matheson specialised in the fantasy/horror/science fiction genre, both as novelist and scriptwriter. He wrote the 1954 novel I am Legend. He worked on many major television series from the 1950s to 70s, including Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone. He also worked with film-maker Roger Corman. Originally proposed in 1963, it was only after censorship laws were eased on depicting Satanism that the project went ahead. Filming started in August 1967. Christopher Lee regarded it as perhaps his favourite work, and apparently lamented he would have like to have done a remake with modern special effects. Wheatley, who was critical of other attempts to film his novels, apparently liked it enough (given the restraints and compromises between a lengthy novel and a watchable movie), that he gave Christopher Lee a first edition copy of the novel.
Here’s Kim Newman on the website empireonline.com: “A spirited bit of demon-busting, with a solid Richard Matheson script that streamlines Dennis Wheatly’s once-popular but deeply stodgy novel into a pacey occult thriller. This is a more ambitious effort than the average Hammer horror film. Christopher Lee is cast against type in the Van Helsing role of the heroic, authoritarian goateed wise man who clashes with Charles Gray’s suave, sneaky Satanist. Set in the 1920s rather than the 1880s, it has a Bulldog Drummond touch as heroes dash about the Home Counties in period cars while decedent aristocrats worship the goat-headed one in decorous mass rituals. The exotic-looking Niké Arrighi is Tanith, predestined to be groped and stabbed on the black altar by the villain, and there’s an early example of the revoked plot development as she is killed, then resurrected when white magic rolls back time to provide a happy ending. Terence Fisher, the most prolific of Hammer’s in-house directors, does especially well underlining the religious aspects of the epic conflict. As often happens, an inadequate but heroic hunk (Leon Greene) was dubbed by voice-of-the-week Patrick Allen, but the two-fisted secondary hero still spends most of the film being patronised or shouted at (‘You fool, Rex!’) by the pompous Duc. In an unforgettable climax the heroes (including Sarah Lawson and a young Paul Eddington) huddle in a magic circle while demon entities rage all around and Lee barks out magic gibberish (‘the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual’) to see off the skull-headed Fourth Horseman…With the classic team of Lee and Hammer Horror you know this is set to be a classic whether for being good or even being bad. Thankfully it most definitely falls into the former category, with Lee giving a memorable and unusual performance as the sorcerer, the hero of the film.”
And this is David Pirie for the Time Out Film Guide: “Over the years, this film’s reputation has grown enormously, and its cult status must be as high as any horror movie. Richard Matheson, who scripted it, was able to improve immeasurably on Dennis Wheatley’s ponderous novel, and it is consequently the best film Fisher and Hammer ever made, an almost perfect example of the kind of thing that can happen when melodrama is achieved so completely and so imaginatively that it ceases to be melodrama at all and becomes a full-scale allegorical vision. Christopher Lee has never been better than as the grim opponent of Satanism, and the night in the pentacle during which the forces of evil mobilise an epic series of cinematic temptations rediscovers aspects of mythology which the cinema had completely overlooked.”
The cast are as follows: Nicholas, Duc De Richleau – Christopher Lee (1922-2015), best known for his Hammer Film Dracula movies; Star Wars; and the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun. His filmography from 1947 to 2015.
Former Canon Damien Mocata – Charles Gray (1928-2000), character actor specialising in villains, his filmography 1958 to 1998. He played arch-villain Blofeld in the James Bond movie Diamond Are Forever.
Tanith Carlisle – Niké Arrighi (born 1947), French artist and former actress, her filmography is from 1967 to 1989. This was her first movie.
Rex Van Ryn – Leon Greene (born 1931), actor and opera singer. His filmography 1965 to 1989.
Simon Aron – Patrick Mower (born 1938), actor, filmography 1968-2000, television work 1964 to now.
Richard Eaton – Paul Eddington (1927-1985), actor, filmography 1956 to 1974, best known for television performances, in The Good Life, and Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister.
Peggy Eaton – Rosalyn Landor (born 1958), filmography 1968 to 1990. Worked in the USA from the 1980s.
Marie Eaton – Sarah Lawson (born 1928), actress, filmography 1951 to 1978. Later television work.
Countess d’Urfe – Gwen Ffrangcom-Davies (1891-1992), actress, limited filmography 1936 to 1970, mostly stage work until 1970, television and radio thereafter.
The Goat of Mendes at the Salisbury Plain sabbath was played by Eddie Power, Christopher Lee’s stunt double in the 1958 movie Dracula.
Dennis Yeats Wheatley (1897-1977) was a prolific novelist, extremely popular from the 1930s to 60s. He wrote 52 novels, of which eleven featured the Duc De Richleau; political thrillers mostly, between 1933 and 1970, Forbidden Territory, set in the Soviet Union, being his first published work. Another eleven featuring spy Gregory Sallust, from 1934 to 1968, the first being Black August, Wheatley’s favourite theme of a communist takeover in Britain. It is said that the Sallust books inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond. Twelve books featured Roger Brook, from 1947 to 1974, in the historical espionage genre. He wrote two science fiction novels – 60 Days to Live (1939) and Star of Ill-Omen (1952) – I’ve read both, but many years ago, the latter was especially awful space opera. Wheatley, wisely, never went near that genre again. Three more novels come under the ‘lost world’ genre – one is Uncharted Seas (1938); three are occult novels; another seven are ‘general adventure’, which includes many of the early novels, for example The Eunuch of Stamboul (1935). Two books are non-fiction – one, Red Eagle (1937), I still have – Wheatley’s very hostile take on the Russian Revolution. All of his books that I’ve seen or read are long – 300-plus pages at least. Wheatley wore his politics on his sleeve; he was very High Tory, pro-monarchist, pro-imperialism, pro-class system. He was a snob, who thought the working classes “lazy”. He opposed both Nazism and communism, but strangely thought the latter to be controlled by Satanists – odd, given most Marxists were atheists, whereas there is evidence to show leading members of the Hitler regime (Himmler, for instance) were fascinated by the occult. Perhaps Wheatley’s obsessive hatred of communism clouded his judgement. In 1947, in the early years of the reforming Atlee government, he predicted a socialist ‘tyranny’, to which he actually justified the killing of “tyrannical officials” – right-wing ‘White terrorism’ to you and I. He served in World War I, was briefly a wine merchant from the 1920s to 30s, before realising he could make more money from writing. In World War II he worked in the London Controlling Section of the War Office, and had the rank of Wing Commander, RAFVR. As a young man he was a womaniser and rake, even keeping a check-list of his numerous conquests. Of his novels, six were filmed – Forbidden Territory in 1934, made at Lime Grove Studios, London; The Secret of Stamboul in 1936, from the novel The Eunuch of Stamboul, also known as The Spy in White, made at Shepperton Studios; The Devil Rides Out; The Lost Continent (from the novel Uncharted Seas), in 1968, also by Hammer Films, but of poor quality; To the Devil – A Daughter, in 1976, a UK/West German (Hammer/Terra Filmkunst) production, starring Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee and a nude, 14-year-old Natassja Kinski. From the 1953 novel of the same name, Wheatley utterly disliked it – rightly so, it was crap – thereafter forbidding any further movies to be made of his books, while even the scriptwriter admitted it was “an awful mess”. Finally, in 2006, The Haunting of Toby Jugg was made for BBC4, titled The Haunted Airman.
Wheatley’s books weren’t literature, but dense, complicated, and well-researched blockbusters, if indisputably class-ridden and snobby. He could soon go from interesting to tiresome and long-winded. By the 1970s they were already falling out of favour – as was his political/historic stance, although perhaps – in blinkered, backward-looking, Brexit Little Britain, he might yet enjoy a renaissance. The Matherson/Terence Fisher movie is perhaps one of those very rare examples of a movie being as good, if not better, than the book. Being already set forty years previous (in the novels Wheatley’s Jean Armand Duplessis, the Duc De Richleau, was born 1875, died 1960), the film still remains enjoyable and not dated. Even the special effects of the forces of evil besieging our heroes, most memorably the giant spider and the Angel of Death – given the period, and decades before CGI – are as good as anything of that time. The very nature of the story – occult fantasy – requires a good hefty suspension of belief. There have been plenty of such movies since – perhaps starting with Spielberg’s Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), all noise and shouting and over-the-top set-pieces, but with geography, mythology and 1930s political history as written by a not-very-bright 12 year old schoolboy. At least Wheatley set his novels – no matter how fantastic the plot – in the real, factual world. He wouldn’t have had armed German soldiers tramping about 1936 British protectorate Egypt! On the other hand, the ending – where the forces of good turn back time, and then (again rather like the last reel of Lost Ark) literally vaporise the bad guys – is a cop-out. White magic can turn back time! Come on! Why not turn back time far enough to stop Simon from meeting Mocata in the first place? The Angel of Death takes the soul of black magician Mocata rather than the dead Tanith? How considerate! I admit that I read the novel so long ago now, as to not recollect any details. Wheatley, the author, was not a Dan Brown or Jeffrey Archer, or even an H.P. Lovecraft recluse, extracting his mythos from books. He had done his research on black magic, white magic, and the occult. Moreover, he had met both the so-called ‘Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and Catholic priest occult expert Montague Summers (1880-1948). He claimed to have seen things, met people, and experienced evil at first hand. He made a big thing of warning readers not to dabble in the occult. If nothing else, it sold copies – on average a million books a year, 40 million books overall. Once read, rarely re-read, however – unlike the Matheson/Fisher movie, which can be watched and enjoyed time and time over. Wheatley wrote pot-boilers, fast, frantic plots featuring comfortable-off middle- to upper-class types, but his books are – in retrospect – racist, xenophobic, sexist, class-ridden, and with a reactionary, right-wing political bias. Quite rightly, as an author, he has passed out of fashion, although superseded by younger – not very intelligent or knowledgeable – upstarts who are more likely to have the bad guys win. In the movie world, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby also came out in 1968, and this time there was no wise Duc De Richleau or his ilk to save the good people. The hope and optimism of the 1960s gave way to the darkness and despair of the 1970s. After this, pictures didn’t just get smaller (as Norma Desmond remarked in Sunset Boulevard), but darker also. The Devil Rides Out was probably not only the best Hammer movie ever, but reminds us movies were once still more positive and upbeat.