What do the following films all have in common? Firefox, starring Clint Eastwood (and his later Absolute Power, come to think of it); The Colditz Story, the 1950s POW film with John Mills; Sidney Poitier’s To Sir with Love; Shane — and The Return of Shane, otherwise known as Pale Rider; The Untouchables, the ‘80s version with Kevin Costner and Sean Connery; the big-screen version of Porridge; and all those old Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films?
Well, for one thing, the ‘heroes’ strike me as genuinely heroic: noble, honourable, sincere, generous and kind-hearted — all qualities I greatly admire. And secondly, they all end if not happily then at least on an upbeat or uplifting note.
Another connection is that I can watch these films again and again and again.
To contextualise that remark a little: whatever the definition of a film buff is, it doesn’t describe me. I record on average perhaps four films a month from various TV channels and tend to watch them in irregular bursts — none for weeks at a time and then perhaps three in as many days. I rarely go to the cinema (the last films I saw on the big screen were Bohemian Rhapsody and Stan and Ollie but, before that, nothing for years) and I hardly ever buy films to keep. Books and CDs, lots. Films, not so much. The few DVDs I own are mainly music-related, plus a handful of TV boxsets (The West Wing, House, Kung Fu) and the odd comedy. I don’t do streaming at all.
Films are not part of my comfort zone in the way that books and music are. I have to be in the mood: watching a film takes time (obviously), concentration and sometimes a real effort of will. It’s that opportunity-cost thing again — what could I be doing instead of sitting here watching this film? The ‘Delete’ button is always to hand.
If I like a film, I will of course watch to the end. If I really like a film, I may watch it a second time when it is next on, perhaps a few months down the line. But that’s probably it. From then on it becomes ‘Seen It’. The Colditz Story, Firefox and the rest, on the other hand… Every month. Every week. Rain. Shine. Sober. Drunk. Not a problem. Just press Play.
Which brings us to The Devil Rides Out.
Certain films — the likes of The Great Escape, The Sound of Music — are labelled ‘classics’, perhaps because they possess a timeless quality but just as likely because we associate them so closely with key national occasions like Christmas and Easter that they are all but embedded in our national culture. Other films, meanwhile, have obviously cultish qualities — The Blues Brothers, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Withnail and I. Devotees of such films might even gather together, perhaps dressing as the key characters, to quote the lines or sing the songs.
The Devil Rides Out doesn’t fit neatly into either of those categories. It’s hardly timeless; though it’s in colour, it is obviously dated. Any showing on mainstream television will doubtless be in the graveyard slot; more recently it has turned up on the niche Horror Channel. Nor does it lend itself to communal viewing or participation. On the other hand, it does boast memorable special effects — though perhaps not memorable for the obvious reason — several iconic set pieces and at least one eminently quotable line of dialogue, albeit (like “Klaatu barada nikto”) not spoken in English.
The film is undoubtedly regarded with great affection by horror film fans, perhaps because it is a more serious effort than the average Hammer production of the time (it came out in 1968, just as Hammer was entering its tomato-ketchup-gore-and-nudity phase). It was profiled by the well-known cinema critic Mark Kermode in his Cult Film Corner series on Radio 1 back in the ‘90s (ironically as part of Mark and Lard’s show known as The Graveyard Shift).
Unlike for that undoubted horror cult classic The Wicker Man (to choose an obvious example), the Wikipedia entry for The Devil Rides Out doesn’t include a Popular Culture section, but it’s a fairly safe bet that the film has lodged itself in the popular consciousness, at least for people of a certain age. It may even be the go-to film for media picture editors desperate to illustrate stories about satanic goings-on. A 2019 Daily Mail story about devil worshippers in Hampshire, for example, used a still from the ‘Goat of Mendes’ sabbat scene as one of its accompanying photos.
Perhaps my fascination with the film stems from the fact that I first saw it as a teenager. It may even be the first ‘black magic’ film I ever saw. I was certainly into all things ‘horror’ at the time. I have written elsewhere about how reading horror novels compensated for not being old enough to see them at the cinema — the likes of The Exorcist, Carrie and The Omen.
Within the ‘horror’ category certain subgenres have always interested me more than others. Reading Stephen King I found Salem’s Lot (vampires) far scarier than, say, The Shining (a haunted building) or Christine (an evil car). Stories that involve reaching into the past — curses, manuscripts, prophecies — intrigue me, so I am drawn to films like — picking two at random — The Ninth Gate (about an ancient book that purportedly contains a magical secret for summoning the Devil) and, going back to the ‘50s, Night of the Demon (runic parchments, satanic curses and, yes, a demon).
But more than that, stories about vampires and black magic are fundamentally about ideas — philosophies, religions, belief systems, heresies, and what the Duke de Richleau (who features in The Devil Rides Out) would call ‘esoteric doctrines’. Just my cup of tea. A good black magic tale is basically about the battle between good and evil. I always enjoy the bit where the beliefs, practices, supernatural powers and vulnerabilities of the evildoers are explained. Why can a vampire not enter someone’s home without an invitation? Why are they repelled by garlic?
There is a history connection to all of this, of course — also very much my thing. Belief in vampires, witches and ghosts is rooted in the past — in superstition, in folklore, in stories passed down from one generation to the next. One of the classic history books of the last 50 years is Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas.
Several years after first watching The Devil Rides Out, I saw To the Devil a Daughter for the first time. Both films star Christopher Lee. Both plots revolve around black magic and devil worship. Both were originally written by Dennis Wheatley.
I remember a couple of Wheatley paperbacks lying around at home when I was a child. I was too young to read them but vaguely recall titillating covers featuring scantily clad females. I ignored Wheatley during my Stephen King/James Herbert-dominated horror-book phase (perhaps I flicked through the ones at home and spotted how dated they are) and eventually ended up buying two special Wheatley book-club editions published in 2005.
Over a prolific writing career Wheatley wrote in a range of fictional genres — including espionage, crime and history — and he appears to have been able to churn out books at will. Alas, quantity triumphed over quality. Admittedly, I have only read a handful of them, so if his Gregory Sallust and Roger Brook books and the rest are masterpieces of literature I am happy to stand corrected. I somehow doubt it.
The Devil Rides Out was his second novel, published in 1934 and using the same lead characters as in his debut novel, The Forbidden Territory, in which they escape from the clutches of the communists in the Soviet Union, the forbidden territory of the title. One of them, Simon, is now entangled with a circle of satanists and must be rescued. Much of the story of To the Devil a Daughter, meanwhile, consists of attempts to track down and rescue a young woman before she is sacrificed by devil worshippers.
Notwithstanding the ‘black magic’ label, Wheatley in fact offers the reader a largely standard adventure-novel diet of kidnappings, escapes and manhunts, served up with lashings of derring-do. Though the plots are undoubtedly exciting in parts, the writing itself is distinctly mediocre and unimaginative. When facing the latest setback, for example, we repeatedly find our heroes rationally weighing their options, confident that even the most dastardly and wicked of their enemies will behave in a predictable way, as if bound by a gentleman’s code of honour.
That, after all, is how men behave in Wheatley’s world — the world about which he writes. He came from a comfortable background — his family owned a wine business and were wealthy enough to send him to Dulwich College — and it shows. Like with Agatha Christie’s Poirot, we’re mixing exclusively with the rich and privileged. In The Devil Rides Out, for example, much of the characters’ wealth is obviously inherited, though Simon’s and Rex’s considerable incomes appear to be from finance and banking.
Simon, we are told early on, is no longer living at his club. Max, meanwhile, is de Richleau’s ‘man’ — in other words, his butler. Indeed, butlers, maids, chauffeurs, cooks and nannies are an intrinsic part of this world. Globetrotting, too, is the norm: Rex, for example, has happened to notice a beautiful stranger called Tanith, who becomes central to the plot, in Budapest, New York and Biarritz on recent visits.
Wheatley’s attempt to write dialogue is hilariously wooden. His use of vocabulary and choice of idioms — “mumsie”, “no better than he should be”, “in the family way” — tells us much about his attitudes, assumptions and prejudices: his worldview is privileged, hierarchical, male-dominated and at the thoroughly reactionary, white-man’s-burden end of the political spectrum.
In his descriptions of the sinister guests at Simon’s party (it turns out they’re all satanists), the juxtaposition of each individual’s racial background with a list of their unpleasant characteristics is unfortunate to say the very least — the “grave-faced Chinaman … whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature”; “a red-faced Teuton, who suffered the deformity of a hare lip”; a “fat, oily-looking Babu”.
To modern sensibilities, the most extraordinarily inappropriate exchange, however, goes as follows:
DUKE: … he reminded me in a most unpleasant way of the Bogey Man with whom I used to be threatened in my infancy.from The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley
REX: Why, is he a black?
I kid you not.
To the Devil a Daughter was published in 1952, almost 20 years after The Devil Rides Out. By this time Wheatley seems to have toned down the ridiculous overuse of capital letters in his writing (though Top Secret — presumably an attempt to use capital letters to convey gravitas — made me laugh out loud), but that apart nothing much has changed. He is clearly no fan of the postwar social-democratic settlement (a welfare state paid for out of progressive taxation etc), seeing it as a naked attack on his world of wealth, privilege and entitlement. Rationing, still largely in place in the early ‘50s, for example, represents the overweening power of the state. Consider, too, this observation about taxation. They are voiced by a ‘baddie’, but there is every reason to suppose that the author is in agreement with the argument:
Since … the Government has become only another name for the People, it really amounts to the idle and stupid stealing from those who work hard and show initiative.from To the Devil a Daughter by Dennis Wheatley
With his Manichaean worldview — good versus evil — it’s easy to see where occultism fits in. Wheatley was vehemently anticommunist, of course: in his books the Soviet Union (and communism in general) is the Devil’s handiwork, a means by which Satan visits chaos and misrule on the world. There are long, uninterrupted monologues — basically, passages of exegesis shoehorned into the text to provide the reader with background information on some aspect of black magic or other. In To the Devil a Daughter, for example, we get several pages on the occultist Aleister Crowley, about whom Wheatley was something of an expert.
Christianity, meanwhile, underpins the forces of goodness and light — and, by extension, order, stability and civilisation. Wheatley’s characters are one-dimensional: pure of heart (though the men, at least, are almost certainly not expected to be actual virgins), honourable and God-fearing. Despite there being no evidence that they attend church or are practising Christians in any way, they are unsullied by base and immoral actions and thoughts. Only thus are they able to call on God’s protection when their very souls are in peril from followers of the Left-Hand Path.
The following exchange ends the film version of The Devil Rides Out. The forces of darkness have been vanquished; Tanith is alive once more; all is as it was:
DUKE: … Mocata is dead.from the film version of The Devil Rides Out (1968)
SIMON: Thank God.
DUKE: Yes, Simon. He is the one we should thank.
Meanwhile, in To the Devil a Daughter, with the good guys trapped in the dastardly Copely-Syle’s crypt and surrounded by infernal creatures, a bolt of lightning cracks open the roof and strikes the altar, shattering it into tiny pieces. The reader is informed — by the narrator Wheatley himself, not via one of the characters — that “God had intervened”.
Some parts of this text were originally used in one or more of my monthly Books, TV and Films blogs.