A quick search on the Waterstones website before I sat down to write this article showed very few of Dennis Wheatley’s books still available. Two or three out of the 70 odd titles he published during a five-decade literary career. As such, it’s easy to forget just how popular Dennis Wheatley was; how prolific; and how varied an output.
As well as the occult novels for which he is chiefly remembered, he wrote historical fiction, espionage dramas and a series of novels set in World War II. His debut novel sold so fast it was being reprinted once a week! During the ’60s, it’s estimated that his titles were shifting a million units each year.
In terms of prolificity and variety of subject matter, Dennis Wheatley was kind of like Stephen King, Bernard Cornwell, Len Deighton and James Jones rolled into one. With the sales figures to prove it. And yet only a handful of his works were adapted for cinema: ‘Forbidden Territory’ is largely forgotten, so too the creaky but enjoyable ‘Secret of Stamboul’ with James Mason and Valerie Hobson; which leaves the three Hammer adaptations: ‘The Lost Continent’ (from the novel ‘Unchartered Seas’, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’.
‘The Lost Continent’ is arguably the most oddball title in Hammer’s vaults, and definitely needs sail the choppy waters of The Agitation of the Mind at some point. ‘To the Devil – a Daughter’ bears little resemblance to Wheatley’s novel beyond the title and caused controversy over a nude scene by Nastassja Kinski (15 at the time of filming).
‘The Devil Rides Out’ also caused controversy when it was released, though not for jailbait reasons. While it was no surprise that Hammer would make a film about the dark arts – particularly with a Wheatley novel as source material – the depiction of the occult in their productions prior to ‘The Devil Rides Out’ had been firmly routed in the Gothic tradition, both in terms of imagery and historical setting. When the occult is allayed with vertiginous castles, black carriages drawn by snorting horses, and poor folk trembling in nearby taverns and warning travellers to stay away, it’s comfortingly easy to file the whole experience under “superstition” and happily munch your popcorn.
‘The Devil Rides Out’, set in 1930s England, brought Satan into the twentieth century. It’s some measure of the film’s controversy at the time that censorship issues were prevalent even before a single frame was shot. Originally slated as a Hammer project in 1963, filming didn’t start till four years later when the studio were more confident that certification would not be withheld.
Adapted by Richard Matheson and directed by Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ begins with the Duc de Richlieu (Christopher Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) concerned for the welfare of their friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). Simon has come under the influence of the darkly charismatic Mocata (Charles Gray). Interrupting a gathering of thirteen at Simon’s house – he tries to pass it off as a meeting of an astronomical society, but some decidedly non-planetary charts in the observatory not to mention a pentagram inlaid on the flooring give the lie – de Richlieu immediately recognizes the cabal as Satanic. Using the simple expedient of slugging the lad unconscious and heaving him over van Ryn’s shoulder, they rescue Simon and make a hasty exit.
What follows is basically a battle of wits between de Richlieu and Mocata with the souls of Simon and Tanith (Niké Arrighi), a fellow neophyte as yet uncorrupted but still powerfully swayed by Mocata’s devilry, at stake.
Pulled into “the battle” (de Richlieu’s words) are his friends Richard (Paul Eddington) and Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson) to whom he entrusts the care of Simon and Tanith. In one of the film’s most quietly chilling scenes, Mocata comes calling and almost manages to exert his influence over Marie. The unexpected appearance of the Eaton’s young daughter Peggy breaks the spell and Marie recovers fast enough to order Mocata out. “I’m leaving,” Mocata assures her; “I will not be back. But something will. Tonight, something will come for Simon and the girl.”
Charles Gray – a natural to play Blofeld a few year’s later in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ – is the film’s ace in the hole. With Christopher Lee, so often an embodiment of the dark side in Hammer films (and in a couple of George Lucas films, come to think of it!), on good guy duties, it was essential that ‘The Devil Rides Out’ have a villain of real gravitas. Charles Gray delivers, projecting suavity, menace, authority and stone cold evil with just a look from those piercing eyes. And the voice. In the black mass scenes, he speaks as if each word is a slab of granite inscribed with something deliciously unholy. He poses a genuine threat to de Richlieu and his friends, so much so that there are no foregone conclusions here and even the redoubtable Duc seems almost powerless in the final confrontation.
There is very little to criticize in ‘The Devil Rides Out’ – the effects show their age in places and Arrighi’s performance is stilted (she disappeared from sight after a career lasting less than a decade) – and much to admire. I’m hard-pressed to choose between this, ‘The Wicker Man’ and the original ‘Dracula’ as my favourite Christopher Lee performance. It’s certainly Charles Gray’s finest hour. The pace is unflagging. The set-pieces – particularly de Richlieu and van Ryk’s desperate invasion of an outdoor ritual to rescue Simon and Tanith; and, later, de Richlieu and the Eaton’s invocation of the powers of good within a chalk circle as they weather a night of diabolical attacks conjured by Mocata – are among the most iconic moments Hammer created. ‘The Devil Rides Out’ takes its Satanism seriously and it lingers shadow-like in the mind.