THE DEVIL RIDES OUT
At the peak of his success Dennis Wheatley shifted a million books a year. He wrote 80 books in his lifetime, and, because he sold so many, some people must have read all of them. His fans recommend The Devil Rides Out as his exceptional achievement. The book has the flaws of all the others by Wheatley, nil characterisation and repetitive regurgitated history substituting for conversation. But it also has one great scene that would have been irresistible to a filmmaker. Wheatley was not a man to shirk confrontation. A British Government proposed that British children should be educated until they were sixteen years old and suggested that miners could work a five-day week. Wheatley objected because he reckoned the proposals would make the British working class lazy. In The Devil Rides Out there are confrontations with various apparitions. These include the Goat of Mendes, the Angel of Death, a half-dressed black native who is spared the indignity of being mentioned in the credits and a dirty big spider. Black magic? Bring it on, said Wheatley.
The key protagonist in The Devil Rides Out is Nicholas, Duc du Richleau. He is rich and has friends, which is presumably why he has the confidence to sit in a comfortable chair, sip his brandy and describe without interruption 500 years of history. The others who listen are the friends of Duc du Richleau. The only detail of characterisation observable in The Devil Rides Out is du Richleau telling Simon Aron that he has good taste in wine. The villain Mocata is a bad person because he kidnaps a young girl to sacrifice and he creates mirthless orgies in which nobody takes off their clothes. The others are good because they try to stop him. And love interest Tanith Carlisle has spent some time in Europe. There is no more. If there were a scale that measured characterisation in literature, Wheatley would score a minus.
Terence Fisher directs The Devil Rides Out, and the great Richard Matheson, who may have fancied a trip to London, agreed to write the script. Fisher is competent but mechanical. The colour is lush, and the stately homes and London apartments are sometimes impressive. The English countryside is familiar, flat and green but soft focus and back projection are over used throughout the film. Richard Matheson makes the best of an impossible job. Before the action begins the first twenty minutes are dull exposition and the opposite of what Matheson produced in his sharp and polished short stories. Matheson, though, cannot resist making a sly joke. He interrupts du Richleau explaining the history of black magic and inserts another scene. We return to the living room just as du Richleau is finishing the explanation. There is no evidence to suggest that Wheatley understood the insult. But, rather than add inspiration or keep his tongue in his cheek, Matheson played it straight and produced an almost efficient plot. I have a suspicion that the remark about the fine taste of Simon was added by Matheson but, having been scarred by reading two novels of Dennis Wheatley, I may be being unfair. If the direction of Terence Fisher is uninspired, it is sensible. Fisher does not linger over the expositional scenes, of which there are a lot. Instead he takes his time whenever there is action or pursuit. It adds balance but does not solve all the problems.
The Devil Rides Out may be threadbare and clunky but it has been acclaimed. There are reasons. The Devil Rides Out was a bold film. Even today a viewer will sense something exceptional while he or she watches the opening titles. The graphics and words are in bright colour. The symbols and inscriptions of black magic are explicit and flashed on to the screen without any shame or inhibition. The titles and the film that follows are not subtle but neither was Dennis Wheatley. Most of his novels had advice for the reader. Black magic was dangerous to the individual and not permissible in a civilised society. Satanism, he stressed, was not something that should be practised at home. Or as Duc du Richleau says in the middle of one of his extended and tedious expositional conversations, ‘It means Simon is playing the most dangerous game to mankind.’
Simon and Tanith are two young people who have become involved with a satanic cult somewhere in the Home Counties. The most impressive and believable moment in the film occurs when a parade of Rolls Royce cars leave a stately home. The cars are taking members of the British upper class to somewhere deep in the woods. These people are not looking for teddy bears. Not only will they soon be groping one another they will summon and welcome the Goat of Mendes or, as du Richleau tells us, ‘the Devil Himself.’ The appearance of the Devil does not convince but the moment the limousines leave the stately home is both mysterious and sinister. Forget Brideshead Revisited the owners of these cars are as unreachable as they are invisible.
Although they will be exploited by Mocatar, who is the head of the cult, the young Simon and Tanith are not innocent victims. Both were tempted to practise black magic. Du Richleau does not condemn their irresponsibility. He wants to save them from their mistake. At one point, like a parent, he quotes his age and experience as being important and qualifying him for authority. The parallel with protectors responding to the drug addictions in others is not avoided. Both Simon and Tanith are obliged to do ‘cold turkey’ and shake free from the control of Mocatar. They survive because they are cared for by others. The Devil Rides Out insists on the difference between good and evil but it is not judgemental. Wheatley may have had harsh politics but his attitude to black magic anticipates the modern liberal response to drug taking.
The highlight of the film is the appearance of the Angel of Death. Since The Devil Rides Out we have seen a headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow but sensitive Christopher Walken did not ride around the living room. The visit of Mocatar to the home of Marie Eaton, another of the well-heeled friends of du Richleau, is more restrained but it also emphasises the threat of black magic to British society, the desire of these devils to invade the lounges of countryside loving and unpretentious lords and ladies. This notion that Satanism can corrupt our friends and settle in our homes may be why it appeals in escapist horror and why Wheatley sold a million books a year. Because we do not really believe in black magic, it provides safe paranoia. Sarah Lawson plays Marie Eaton. This dependable actor was not considered beautiful but Lawson has strong blue eyes and bold red hair. Most men would be willing to be persuaded. Neither Niké Arrighi nor Leon Greene are impressive as the romantic couple. The dialogue does not help them but Arrighi has a baffled stare that at times makes her look cross-eyed and a voice that would make beer go flat. Greene made a sensible choice after The Devil Rides Out and settled for broad comedy. Something went wrong with the performance of Green because his dialogue was dubbed by Patrick Allen, the real life husband of Sarah Lawson.
Charles Gray has fun with the part of Mocatar. He realises the audience is waiting for the Angel of Death and the dirty big spider to appear and that no one is really interested in his bogus defence of black magic. Gray treats his dialogue with contempt and grabs the opportunity to use his fine voice to create a distinct and unpredictable rhythm in his speech. Christopher Lee was proud of his performance in The Devil Rides Out. Perhaps he enjoyed appearing in well-tailored suits and pretending to sip brandy and smoke cigars. The casual way he responds to Rex Van Ryn asking to borrow a motorcar is a delight.
‘Yes, yes,’ mumbles Lee dismissing the request as if unnecessary.
The servant of du Richleau is powerless against Mocatar. Du Richleau is forgiving and behaves like someone talking to an inferior child. This battle for survival will require more than the working classes, decent chaps perhaps but at their best when they spend six days a week in the coal mines. No one can deny that Wheatley had energy but there is nothing to suggest that he ever visited a coal mine.
The final scene is, inevitably, added exposition. Lee explains the previous plot and talks about how time was suspended while they defeated Mocatar and his crew. As Mocatar was no match for du Richleau and his mates, we have to wonder why the cosmos was put on hold for no good reason. How it is all supposed to square with Christian faith and loyalty to God, who must have noticed something odd when the planets stopped turning, is sidestepped. But we can let that go because there is something lyrical in how Lee delivers this final speech. Instead of Christian triumph in the final scene he suggests a trust in steadfast decency and common sense. The British upper class will prevail providing they have a full wine cellar, a decent supply of cigars and warm afternoons for cricket. Audiences in 1968 must have listened to Lee and believed that they could rely on their betters for a safe homeland on a planet free of diabolical interference. The European Union, smoking bans, alcohol limits per week, Brexit and hysteria came later.
Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.