The Making of The Devil Rides Out: Dennis Wheatley (Part two)

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the devil rides out

The Making of The Devil Rides Out:

Dennis Wheatley

Part two

The second in a series of essays by K B Morris on the occult writer Dennis Wheatley explores his novel, The Devil Rides Out, and the making of one of the truly great films in Hammer Productions' oeuvre...

**This article contains spoilers**

Christopher Lee first met Dennis Wheatley when he gave a lecture about black magic in Harrods to promote his novel The Satanist (1960). A fan of his work, Wheatley permitted Lee to take his Black Magic books to Hammer Film Productions. In his autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome (2009), Lee describes how it took years for Hammer to agree to make The Devil Rides Out, due to censorship issues. Anthony Hinds, Hammer’s co-founder, eventually agreed to read the book and optioned it alongside The Satanist (1960) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953).

   As Lee stated in his autobiography, ‘After years of urging black-magic themes on Hammer, I had a breakthrough with The Devil Rides Out. Conservative, Hammer had always worried about the Church’s reaction to the screening of the Black Mass. But we thought the charge of blasphemy would not stick if we did the thing with due attention to scholarship.’

   Hinds pitched The Devil Rides Out to Universal Studios in 1964, but it was rejected due to its shocking contents. In an effort to tone it down, the American writer, John Hunter, who had written the script for Hammer’s Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (Cyril Frankel, 1960), was commissioned, but his efforts were deemed ‘too English’ for an American audience.

   Hinds next contracted Richard Matheson, whom he had met when he bought the rights to his novel, I am Legend in 1957. A respected science fiction and horror writer, Matheson had just completed the script for Hammer’s Fanatic (Silvio Narizzano, 1965). He already had a body of film work behind him having adapted his own novel, The Shrinking Man (1956), written scripts for The Twilight Zone and Star Trek and completed several Poe adaptations for American International Pictures.

   Terence Fisher was chosen to direct. Fisher, who began his film career as an editor, directed his first film, A Song for Tomorrow in 1948. He continued to direct low budget films for studios and television until 1957, when Hammer, impressed with his work ethic, offered him The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Shot in lurid Eastmancolor, The Curse of Frankenstein firmly established Hammer as forerunners in the gothic horror genre. It starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who had worked together for years, though Cushing was better known at the time.

   Although the film was derided by critics, it was a box office success making back seventy times its production costs. It is now critically respected with Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese amongst its admirers.

Fisher’s outlook in The Curse of Frankenstein and his subsequent films draws heavily on conservative Christian themes. Fisher believed that life was fundamentally about Good versus Evil, which he described as a truism and he attempted to underline this conflict in every film. His heroes are often sexless or pure, as opposed to his villains who are ruled by their baser desires. Although Fisher attempts to show the lure of villainy, in the end, innocence is rewarded and good always triumphs. This ethos gels perfectly with Wheatley’s Manichaeism, which also divides the world into a struggle between spiritual light and material darkness. The Devil Rides Out, therefore, punishes the sins of the flesh and rewards the pure of heart, both symbolically and through its characters.

the devil rides out

Terence Fisher and Christoper Lee on the set of The Devil Rides Out

   Casting began in 1967 and Christopher Lee did not want to take the role of Mocata: ‘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.’

   He was, therefore, cast as the Duke de Richleau and relishing the opportunity, read all the de Richleau books in preparation.

   The role of Mocata was meant to go to Gert Fröbe, a German actor who played Bond’s nemesis in Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton, 1964) but, due to its success, was no longer within budget. Charles Gray was picked for the part instead, changing Wheatley’s vision for the character. He was no longer obese and grotesque but suave, with piercing blue eyes that made him such a good arch-villain in Diamonds are Forever (1971). He was a favourite of both Hinds and Fisher, after having appeared in You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967) as the mysterious Henderson.

   Nike Arrighi who played Tanith was born in Nice and worked as a model in Paris, before moving to London to study at RADA. She was earmarked to become one of Hammer’s stars but didn’t work with them again. However, she did go on to work with several New Wave directors including Ken Russell, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

   Leon Greene an opera singer and actor, who had just completed Hammer’s A Challenge for Robin Hood (C.M. Pennington-Richards, 1967), was cast as Rex van Ryn. The rest of the cast, Patrick Mower (Simon Aron), Paul Eddington (Richard Eaton) and Sarah Lawson (Marie Eaton), were all known for television work. Paul Eddington perhaps became the more famous after the film, with well-received roles in The Good Life and Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister.

   Filming began in Elstree on 7 August 1967 and a month after production began, Wheatley and Joan visited the set to see how things were going. Hammer were concurrently filming an adaptation of Wheatley’s Unchartered Seas, renamed The Lost Continent (Michael Carreras, 1968) and had acquired the rights to The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948).

the devil rides out

Dennis Wheatley and Christopher Lee

   Matheson made a lot of changes to the book, completely removing the central political and historical themes, thus rendering much of Mocata’s behaviour nonsensical. In the book, Mocata’s main goal and the reason he is pursuing Simon is the Talisman of Set which bestows upon its owner, almost unlimited power. Mocata intends to start a world war with the power of the Talisman and needs people born under exact astrological adjuncts for a ritual in order to find it. Both Tanith and Simon were born at the right time, and the ritual cannot take place without them. With his motivation missing, Mocata is apparently relentlessly pursuing Simon out of malice and Tanith because he uses her as a conduit. Additionally, the Duke is such a formidable foe, that it seems like pure folly for Mocata to remain in his sights for no reason other than pique.

   Matheson also altered the background of Marie Eaton, changing her name from Princess Marie Lou and of Russian heritage, to Marie. Her daughter is Fleur in the book but becomes Peggy (Rosalyn Landor) in the film. These changes were perhaps made to avoid explaining their backstory as well as making them more relatable. The Christian elements in the film are amped up with the use of holy water and crosses. As such, Simon is no longer Jewish and the swastika used to protect him becomes a cross.

   Wheatley didn’t seem to mind the changes and wrote a personal thank you note to Matheson for his script. As he said in his autobiography, Drink and Ink, ‘…the script-writer stuck, as far as film technique permitted, to the story. I wrote to him at Hollywood to thank him for that. His reply was, ‘I have written several novels myself and had their film versions murdered by the script-writers; so when I became a script-writer myself, I swore that I would never mess up another author’s story.”

   Matheson uses the esoteric information from the book with a light hand. Like all good horror, suspense is maintained by hinting at the enormity of the problems they face, and the Duke, played with authority by Lee, espouses enough occult information to create a sense of authenticity. Although Lee was a lot younger than the Duke, his aristocratic bearing gives him a gravitas that fits perfectly with the character.

   The opening scene, where we see the Duke’s look of relief as Rex lands his private plane, accomplishes several things at once. It casts the Duke as a concerned father figure, anxious for his friend and elevates us immediately into Wheatley’s rarefied world of private planes and luxury products. As such, the film is a favourite with classic car enthusiasts and includes a red 1928 Lancia Lambda, a 1927 Bentley 3 Litre Vanden Plas and a 1929 Invicta 3 Litre, amongst other beauties. 

the devil rides out

The 1928 Lancia Lambda

   The production designer was Bernard Robinson who joined Hammer in 1956 and had previously worked on several successful Hammer productions, including The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). Robinson drew meticulous pencil and ink sketches of his designs and his attention to detail includes decorating the satanic temples with intricate astrological and Kabbalistic symbols.

   Due to Hammer’s strict budgets, Robinson was skilled at using the same sets and props time and again in various films. He was particularly known for using twisted pillars to create a sense of unease. A particularly nice touch is the three-headed ornament on the gate leading to Mocata’s house, filmed at a private house called High Canons a few miles from Elstree-Borehamwood Studios. Due to its location, it has been used in multiple TV shows and films including The Satanic Rites of Dracula (Alan Gibson, 1973). Robinson’s sets, in combination with Rosemary Burrows’ costumes, successfully bestow a decadent feel.

the devil rides out

Rex stands outside Mocata’s house with the three-headed snake designed by Bernard Robinson

   Cinematography was under the direction of Arthur Grant, who joined Hammer in 1957, taking over from their principal photographer, Jack Asher. Asher, who was known for his theatrical use of lighting and bright colour palette, had quite a different style to Grant’s, who Fisher described as having a ‘more realistic approach.’ Grant was particularly well known for dramatic night sequences, often saying, ‘Never mind how dark it’s supposed to be – the audience has still got to see what’s going on!’

   Although The Devil Rides Out is perhaps not as lurid as previous Hammer films, it still retains a richness of colour and Grant become one of Hammer’s most prolific cinematographers until his untimely death in 1972.

   Mocata, who is now quintessentially English, becomes a father figure to Simon, creating a polarity between himself and the Duke as they battle for Simon’s soul. Indeed, the Duke is such a threat to Mocata, that Matheson employs the trick of him leaving to carry out some research, thus rendering the other characters helpless before Mocata’s formidable will.

the devil rides out

Mocata loses his half-Irish, half-French heritage and becomes an English gent.

   Once the Duke disappears, the film slows, allowing us to learn more about the characters and become more invested in their plight. We first meet the Eatons in front of their huge house, which was filmed at the Edgwarebury Hotel now known as The Manor Elstree, a couple of miles from Elstree studios. As the family sit before their house, it creates a kind of Garden of Eden, with the family innocent of the evil about to befall them. They are an upper-class family, the backbone of British society, and it’s not difficult to see some of Wheatley’s political views in their symbolism. Matheson’s changes also create an ‘English and other’, divide as many of the Satanists are foreign.

   Marie Eaton meets Mocata in the first of Fisher’s set pieces, and we finally see how powerful a threat he is as she immediately succumbs to his will. The spell is broken by Peggy and Mocata leaves with the eminently quotable, ‘I shall not be back… but something will.’ This is not Wheatley’s line but Matheson’s, derived from Wheatley’s less succinct, ‘I will send the Messenger to your house tonight and he shall take Simon from you alive – or dead!’

the devil rides out

Mocata at the Eaton’s

   The second half of the film is where the female characters come to the fore. Tanith is a more complex character than Hammer’s usual fair and we are never sure which side she is on until the end. She is foreign, like many of the other Satanists, and more easily tempted by the sins of the flesh – unlike our thoroughly decent Brits! Tanith sensually writhes around in the hay, fighting Mocata as he strives to control her. She evidently isn’t innocent enough to win and perishes in the struggle.

the devil rides out

Rex and Tanith in the hay

   The Duke returns for the next set-piece inside the protective circle. An eerie atmosphere is created through lighting, masterful editing and a great score. The Eaton’s and Simon put their faith in the Duke who never doubts himself, finally reciting the Sussamma Ritual.

the devil rides out

The cast await horrors in the protective circle

   Although the ritual is used in the book, Wheatley didn’t write the words, so Lee consulted the British Museum who directed him to the Grimoire of Armadel, a book of ceremonial magic from the 1600s. Lee chose eight words from the Operation of Uriel Seraphim, a spell used to trap the Devil in a bottle, ‘Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta, Zati Zata Galatim Galata.’

the devil rides out

Chistopher Lee as the Duke de Richleau

   We then move to the final set piece which is somewhat anticlimactic, after the dash through Europe in the book. We find ourselves in a Satanic basement where Peggy is about to be sacrificed. Tanith saves the day via Marie, again reciting the Sussamma Ritual and the Satanists are defeated, leaving the characters in front of a giant cross and praising God for saving them. Her good deed cancelling out her sins, Tanith is redeemed and comes back to life. Lee later spoke of how a Catholic Bishop had approached him and praised the film, saying how his congregation had been impressed with how ‘Evil is vanquished and Good triumphs.’

   The production was not without problems. Hinds was instructed by James Carreras, co-founder and Chair of Hammer, to keep the budget for The Devil Rides Out to £180,000, (approximately £3.5m). The budget spiralled to £285,000 (approximately £5.6m), but by the time Fisher was appointed director, the film was part of a Seven Arts-Fox-Warner/ABPC package which was set up in 1966.

   The Devil Rides Out was already under option by Michael Stainer-Hutchins and Peter Daw. They had set up a company to develop optical and special effects, approaching Wheatley directly for the rights to his Black Magic books. Lee knew this when he approached Hammer and advised Hinds to negotiate with Stainer-Hutchins and Daw.

   These negotiations went on from 1963 until 1967 because, even though Stainer-Hutchins was willing to sell his interest, he wanted to work on the special effects. The problem with that, according to Carreras, was that they wanted more money than the budget allowed and weren’t particularly very good.

   Unable to negotiate out of the deal, the majority of the film’s special effects were overseen by Stainer-Hutchins and both Stainer-Hutchins and Daws remained as associate producers. The only special effects Stainer-Hutchins didn’t work on, was the Angel of Death sequence which was overseen by Les Bowie, who also worked on other Hammer productions including Dracula (1958) and The Kiss of the Vampire (Don Sharp, 1963). Bowie was later part of the team that won an Oscar for the special effects on Superman (Richard Donner, 1978).

   Makeup expert Roy Ashton, created the Angel’s skull face as well as the mask for the Goat of Mendes seen at the Satanic orgy. The Satanic orgy was filmed in thick mud after heavy rain at Black Park country park, near Pinewood Studios. The Goat was played by Eddie Powell, a stunt double for Christopher Lee and married to wardrobe supervisor Rosemary Burrows.

the devil rides out

‘The Goat of Mendes, the Devil himself!’ Designed by Roy Ashton

   The score was composed by James Bernard, who said in an interview that The Devil Rides Out was one of his favourite books. Bernard attended Wellington College, a private school in Berkshire which was also attended by Christopher Lee. An acquaintance of Benjamin Britten, Bernard studied at the Royal College of Music after serving in the RAF.

   John Hollingsworth, the Music Supervisor from Hammer, heard something Bernard had composed on the radio and offered him work on The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955). Bernard subsequently worked on many Hammer films and later went on to score the music for F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922/1997).

   Bernard starts the opening credits of The Devil Rides Out, with a five-note refrain, that builds to a crescendo, itself repeating five times. Like the score for Dracula (1958), the five notes spell out the title of the film in musical syllables. His score retains a sense of threat, with an almost constant rumble of drums and an eerie string section. Bernard was so proud of the score, that he requested some of it be played at his funeral.

   When Hinds saw the rough cut of the film, he panicked and it appeared Carreras was right to have reservations about Stainer-Hutchins’ involvement. He contacted James Bernard and asked him to, ‘…do all you can because I’m not sure the film is working out as it should.’

   Richard Matheson was dismayed at the quality of the special effects,
‘The whole scene where they’re protecting themselves from psychic attack should have been more of a scene. It was indicated to be such in my script. It wasn’t supposed to be a giant spider that attacks them. That was something they had to put in to save money.’

the devil rides out

The infamous giant spider. The tarantula used for filming unfortunately perished under the hot lights.

   Hammer’s special effects budget was so low that they used an asthmatic horse with one lung, to carry the Angel of Death. Lee often spoke of how he would like to remake the film, using modern technology.
Editing changes were made including dubbing over Leon Green’s voice with that of Patrick Allen, husband of Sarah Lawson. As Allen explained, ‘…he sang his lines and they just felt it could be improved upon.’ Even given the changes, some of the special effects remained unfinished, such as the background to the Angel of Death sequence.

   In the States, Joseph Sugar, the Executive Vice President of Warner Bros-7, didn’t like the film and Hammer received the message, ‘Joe… seems to think that The Devil Rides Out is a Western and he thinks the budget of £285,000 is too much for a Western.’ Hammer promptly changed the name to The Devil’s Bride for the American release and hitched it to the promotion for Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), which opened at the same time.

   The film flopped in America but was a commercial and critical success in the UK upon its release that Summer. It was described by the press as, ‘Gripping excitement, sustained at fever pitch’ containing, ‘Black magic thrills.’ Lee’s performance was of particular note with the Evening Citizen saying, ‘Christopher Lee, as usual, turns in an immaculate performance.’

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Poster for the 1968 film release

   Christopher Lee often said in later years, how he would like to reprise his role which was one of his favourites and his praise remained effusive, ‘It was a magnificent film, done in the best Hammer tradition.’ Wheatley was very pleased with Lee’s performance saying, ‘Christopher took the part of the Duke de Richleau and played the role magnificently.’ He sent Lee a first edition of the book with the inscription, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done to get this film made and also for your performance as the Duke de Richleau.’

   Lee went on to star in another Hammer production of Wheatley’s novels, To the Devil…a Daughter (1976), marking a turning point for all involved, which we will examine in the final part of this series.

Read part one Occult Uncle: Dennis Wheatley


Sources:

– Terence Fisher Interview, Little Shoppe of Horrors #19. by Jan Van Genechten
– The Dennis Wheatley Museum
– The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley, Phil Baker, Dedalus Ltd, 2011
– The Time Has Come… The Memoirs of Dennis Wheatley 1919-1977 Drink and Ink v. 3, Hutchinson, 1979
– Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Christopher Lee, W&N,1997
– Wheatley on film: “The Devil Rides Out”, The Devil Wheatley Project, Matthew Coniam
– British Cult Classics: The Devil Rides Out/Blu-Ray Review, by Frank Collins, 9 October 2012
– The Devil Rides Out (1968) Reviews and overview, 27 June, 2019, Daz Lawrence, Movies and Mania

KB Morris

KB Morris

K B Morris write plays, novels and short stories.

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