The Diogenes verdict on the Hammer film adaptations of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic novels? In a word, terrific. Superior supernatural fare, you might say. The original Wheatley novels themselves, on the other hand — errr…no thanks. Not even a quick burst of the Sussamma Ritual could rescue them from the literary abyss, sizeable chunks of Wheatley’s text being all but unreadable. Click the link to read Part 1 of my Wheatley blog trilogy, Dennis Wheatley and The Devil Rides Out, for more on this.
Hammer filmed two of Wheatley’s supernatural novels; a third on which they took out an option — The Satanist — was never made. Of the two novels, The Devil Rides Out (published in 1934) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953), the first is the better one, though ‘better’ very much in a relative sense, like saying that a two-day migraine is better than an abscess on a tooth. Having said that, the pentacle scene, when Mocata sends various manifestations of evil to claim back Simon, is excellently written and genuinely unsettling, even for the modern reader:
A dim phosphorescent blob began to glow in the darkness; shimmering and spreading into a great hummock, its outline gradually becoming clearer. It was not a man form nor yet an animal, but heaved there on the floor like some monstrous living sack. It had no eyes or face but from it there radiated a terrible malefic intelligence.The Devil Rides Out, Chapter XXVII, Within the Pentacle
Suddenly there ceased to be anything ghostlike about it. The Thing had a whitish pimply skin, leprous and unclean, like some huge silver slug. Waves of Satanic power rippled through its spineless body, causing it to throb and work continuously like a great mass of new-made dough. A horrible stench of decay and corruption filled the room; for as it writhed it exuded a slimy poisonous moisture which trickled in little rivulets across the polished floor. It was solid, terribly real, a living thing. They could even see long, single golden hairs, separated from each other by ulcerous patches of skin, quivering and waving as they rose on end from its flabby body — and suddenly it began to laugh at them, a low, horrid, chuckling laugh.
Even scarier than a giant spider, I’d say.
Up to this midpoint of the story, the later film (very) roughly follows the original book: Simon Aron, young friend of the Duke de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, has become embroiled with a group of satanists and must be rescued before his satanic baptism. Though Rex is ignorant in these matters, the duke is something of an expert. The film script — aided by Christopher Lee’s wonderful delivery — conveys gravitas but not pomposity: “Though I have never mentioned it, I have made a very deep study of these esoteric doctrines.”
In the book, on the other hand, Wheatley’s typewriter habitually develops a Caps Lock problem as the duke repeatedly serves up double helpings of Very Important Words.
…for Light typifies Health and Wisdom, Growth and Life; while Darkness means Disease and Ignorance, Decay and Death.The Devil Rides Out, Chapter III, The Esoteric Doctrine
We also get the Spirit, the Elixir of Life, Black Magic, Way of Light, Way of Darkness, Black Masses, a Satanic Temple, Devil Worshippers, Witchcraft and so on. A major flaw in Wheatley’s writing is his show-off tendency, inserting huge dollops of turgid and unnecessary detail into pages of long, ridiculously unrealistic dialogue. The duke and Simon, for example, have an academic-level conversation at Stonehenge about alchemy; the duke is, naturally, an expert on the subject. There’s also a lengthy de Richleau lecture on Set, the evil brother of Osiris, from Egyptian mythology. The man is, cliché alert, a veritable walking encyclopaedia.
Anyway, back to the plot. There’s the search of Simon’s house and the confrontation with ‘Embodied Evil’ (an astral body that just happens to be black-skinned in book and film — see here for more on Wheatley’s racism), Rex meeting and falling in love with Tanith Carlisle (another member of the satanist group who like Simon has yet to receive her satanic baptism), and Tanith’s escape from their care.
So far, so (fairly) similar.
‘Iconic’ is a much-overused word (not least by me). The online Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as ‘very famous or popular, especially being considered to represent particular opinions or a particular time’, and chooses the following as its three illustrative examples: John Lennon achieving iconic status after his death, the gunfight as the iconic image of the Wild West and the characters, dialogue and music of the film Casablanca.
The appearance of the Goat of Mendes at the sabbat, the already-mentioned pentacle scene and the climactic ritual of the child sacrifice on the altar can all justifiably be called iconic. As noted in my previous Wheatley blog, a 2019 Daily Mail story about devil worshippers in the English countryside used a ‘Goat of Mendes’ still as a photo to accompany the text.
The Great Sabbat itself is a good example of where book can outdo film. Wheatley imagines it well over several chapters. The satanists’ meeting place is a grand house in the village of Chilbury, the sabbat itself somewhere on the plains of Wiltshire in a “saucer-shaped depression”. The duke and Rex follow the satanists in their car; Tanith, meanwhile, is lured there by malign forces. In the (very) low-budget film, on the other hand, the grand house appears to be handily placed just round the corner from where Mocata’s evil powers have caused Rex’s car to crash and Tanith to effect her escape from him.
And then there’s the Goat of Mendes — “the Devil himself!”:
…the manifestation took on a clearer shape; the hands, held forward almost in an attitude of prayer but turned downward, became transformed into two great cloven hoofs. Above rose the monstrous bearded head of a gigantic goat, appearing to be at least three times the size of any other which they had ever seen. The two slit-eyes, slanting inwards and down, gave out a red baleful light. Long pointed ears cocked upwards from the sides of the shaggy head, and from the bald, horrible unnatural bony skull, which was caught by the light of the candles, four enormous curved horns spread out — sideways and up.The Devil Rides Out, Chapter XVI, The Sabbat
After the rescue of Simon (though not, in the book, Tanith) the duke takes them to the ancient sanctuary of Stonehenge to see out the night safely. We learn that Simon is Mocata’s gateway to acquiring the Talisman of Set, which will allow him to summon the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into the world. In a twist to what we read in the history books, it appears that the horsemen were last summoned in 1914 and that Germany is therefore absolved of all guilt for causing the First World War:
…every adept knows that it started because one of the most terrible Satanists who ever lived found one of the secret gateways through which to release the four horsemen.The Devil Rides Out, Chapter XX, The Four Horsemen
Behind it all was the Russian monk Rasputin, according to the duke “the greatest Black Magician that the world had known for centuries”. Coincidentally, it was Christopher Lee who played the “Evil genius” in question in the 1966 Hammer film Rasputin the Mad Monk.
Our heroes head down to the Eatons’ house — Cardinals Folly. In the film Tanith is with them, having been rescued with Rex from the sabbat. She runs away from Cardinals Folly, fearful that it is through her that Mocata attacks the others. Rex catches up with her and they spend the night in a deserted barn or stable in the woods. In the book, on the other hand, she calls Rex from the nearby village inn, having found him via the process of automatic writing. They resolve to stay there all night. In both film and book Tanith is killed, a casualty of the Angel of Death, summoned by Mocata and seen off by the duke with the final two lines of the “dread” Sussamma Ritual.
Ah, the Sussamma Ritual, to utter which is to do a thing which shall never be done except in the direst emergency when the very soul is in peril of destruction [italics added by Wheatley, presumably in case we didn’t grasp how dire things need to get before it can be called upon]. Its words are right up there with ‘Klaatu barada nikto’ from The Day the Earth Stood Still as truly iconic gibberish:
Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta, Zati Zata Galatim Galata.The final two lines of the Sussamma Ritual, as spoken by the Duke de Richleau
Well, actually not gibberish. Christopher Lee himself apparently visited the British Museum to consult the Grimoire of Armadel, a seventeenth-century book of ceremonial magic, in search of a spell or incantation to add authenticity to the scene.
The final third of the film is completely reimagined, presumably on cost grounds. Following the death of Tanith and his failure to prise away Simon, Mocata kidnaps the Eatons’ young daughter (Fleur in the book; Peggy in the film) in order to offer her as a sacrifice in a black mass. In the film, the location is close by and easily accessible. In the book, on the other hand, our heroes are forced to traverse the continent of Europe. Handily, Richard Eaton has an aeroplane parked at the bottom of the garden. Cue breathless flights to Paris and then to an inhospitable mountain range in Greece for the final showdown between good and evil.
In the film the duke’s courage fails him and he refuses to repeat the Sussamma Ritual, even though Peggy’s soul is very obviously in peril. Mrs Eaton (another name switch — Marie rather than Marie Lou) comes to the rescue, possessed by — presumably — God, though speaking with the voice of (the dead) Tanith. The subtext would make CS Lewis blush. Evil has been vanquished not so much by ‘the Powers of Light’ or ‘Goodness’ but by Christianity. The paraphernalia of and participants in the black mass are consumed by fire (though the dutiful Christians standing just to the side are not so much as singed) and the room is magically transformed into a place of Christian worship, complete with giant cross on the wall.
The very final words of the film are:
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.
In the book the denouement takes place in the crypt of an age-old monastery. With our heroes imprisoned in an invisible magic circle, the Goat of Mendes makes a guest reappearance, this time above the altar on which the (naked) child is to be sacrificed, glaring at them with its “red, baleful, slanting eyes” and belching “fetid, deathly breaths from its cavernous nostrils”.
At the final moment, with Mocata’s knife poised above the body of the child, Marie/Marie Lou saves the day. In the film she utters a slight variation on the words “They only who Love without Desire shall have power granted to them in the Darkest Hour”. In the novel we are told that it is from the Red Book of Appin and that she is somehow able to visualise these words in her mind. In the film she then steps forward, wakes her daughter from her trance and walks her through the Sussamma Ritual. In the book Marie Lou “spoke a strange word — having five syllables”. The effect is the same — to destroy the black mass, to kill Mocata and to reverse time and space, so that they are back at Cardinals Folly and with Tanith alive and well (after a brandy), Mocata’s soul having been claimed by the Angel of Death instead of hers.
Though filmed only eight years apart, The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter seem like products of completely different eras. In part that is because the former retains its 1930s setting whereas the latter is updated to the present day (well, the ’70s). In part too, perhaps, it is because The Devil Rides Out was made just before Hammer embarked on its blood-and-softcore-sex phase. Publicity shots of Mocata about to ravish/sacrifice what looks to be Tanith are not from the film itself. In fact, there is no gore in the film at all — the animal sacrifice at the sabbat is off-camera — and it features surely the first mass orgy of sexual depravity where all the participants keep their clothes on. Indeed, the scariest part of the film is probably the opening credits, with its spine-tingling score and a backdrop of satanic symbols.
Several of the interiors seem familiar, almost certainly from episodes of TV series like The Saint and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased); the garden/driveway shot of Cardinals Folly has also definitely cropped up elsewhere and apparently the country lanes are where The Avengers (Steed, Mrs Peel etc) was often filmed. And the naffness of the special effects — particularly the ‘giant’ spider and the Angel of Death on horseback, the repeated reverse footage used to simulate the horse’s attempts to penetrate the circle — is one of the film’s most endearing qualities. In fact, the most unsettling moment in the pentacle scene is when the duke utters the words: “The lights…”
Christopher Lee as the Duke de Richleau — an utterly inspired piece of casting. It seems that Wheatley and Lee knew each other well, that Lee shared Wheatley’s interest in the Occult and that Wheatley had pressed for Lee to be cast in the role of the duke. Lee himself was not keen on playing the Mocata role, it seems: “I told Hammer, ‘Look, enough of the villainy for the time being, let us try something different and let me be on the side of the angels for once.'” Casting Charles Gray — smooth, suave, debonair — as Mocata was also an excellent decision, a deliberate move away from the repulsive Mocata of the book. The oddest piece of casting is perhaps that of the opera singer Leon Greene as Rex; he has the chiselled good looks and the action-man physique but it was decided that his voice needed to be dubbed.
The film script includes so many memorable lines memorably delivered — Christopher Lee, in particular, often using short … pauses … between … words … for … added … dramatic … effect. Here are some of my favourites:
REX: What do you want to look at his blasted telescope for?At Simon’s house. The duke has already twigged what is going on
DUKE: I don’t.
The power of darkness is more than just a superstition. It is a living force which can be tapped at any given moment of the night.The duke explains all to a disbelieving Rex. Immediate cut to Mocata using his powers to attack Simon even though he is in a hypnotically induced sleep
Don’t look at the eyes, Rex! Don’t look at the eyes!Sound advice from the duke when facing Embodied Evil
REX: Oh, may I borrow a car?So says the duke, moments after informing us that the curator of the British Museum is a good friend of his
DUKE: Yes, take any of them.
REX: What has this Mocata done to make you so afraid of him?Rex continues to believe that he can keep Tanith safe from Mocata
TANITH: It’s what he’ll do. Oh god, it’s what he’ll do.
The Goat of Mendes — the Devil himself!Gatecrashing the sabbat
MARIE: Uncle Nicholas, how can we help?Arriving at Cardinals Folly, the home of Richard and Marie Eaton
DUKE: You’re already helping, my dear. Simon’s resistance is practically nil because he’s been under the influence of Mocata for so long. And the same thing applies to Miss Carlisle. Rex and I are at a low ebb after last night. Your coming fresh into the battle now is of paramount importance.
I do not propose to discuss with you the rights and wrongs of practising the magic art. I will confine myself to saying that I am a practitioner of some experience.Mocata, modest as ever
I shall not be back. But something will. Tonight. Something will come for Simon and the girl.Mocata — possibly the best line of all in the film
RICHARD: Frankly, I think we’re behaving like a pack of idiots.Mocata tries to find an easy way to break the circle by manipulating Richard
REX: It begins.
The Bride of Chaos! The Rider upon the Beast!Mocata prepares to sacrifice Peggy
It is all too easy to poke fun at the not-very-special special effects and the budget-driven plotholes and shortcuts, but for me The Devil Rides Out is up there with The Wicker Man as one of the great British horror movies. The script is a vast improvement on the original source material and the acting is top notch. Terence Fisher’s direction is also widely praised by critics at a technical level — notably the pentacle scene but also the earlier scene in the library when Mocata hypnotises Mrs Eaton. The pace of the film is also unrelenting, right from the off: within seconds we are aware of Simon’s mysterious behaviour, and when at Simon’s house the duke suddenly whispers “We’re going to be asked to leave, Rex” the viewer is completely hooked.
Though it was much less commercially or critically successful, I am also a big fan of the second of Hammer’s Wheatley adaptations, To the Devil a Daughter. More on this film to come.
[TO BE CONTINUED…]