Hammer Rides Out

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

One of the best value DVD boxed sets I’ve ever obtained was The Ultimate Hammer Collection, which features 21 selected horror, thriller, and fantasy movies from the archives of Hammer Studios. Focusing on their heyday from the 1960s and 1970s, the set includes a strange combination of undeniable classics, interesting obscurities, and utter turkeys; I suspect rights issues might have prevented the inclusion of some of Hammer’s earlier works. (For instance, their original takes on Dracula and Frankenstein are entirely absent, both those series represented only by a random selection of sequels.)

The set originally retailed for over £100, but for a while now it’s been obtainable at substantially lower prices, thanks in part to the waning of the DVD format in the face of the inexorable march of Blu-Ray and streaming services; when I bought it the price averaged to about £1.50 per movie, which was too tempting to ignore. Despite the lack of some important early works, it’s got a bunch of high-quality movies which showcase the Hammer house style (which was so distinctive that “Hammer horror” practically became its own subgenre) – as well as a clutch of films which either demonstrate the weakness of the formula or expose what can go horribly wrong (or terribly right) when the formula is deviated from. That makes it the perfect fodder for when I challenge myself to post something horror-related to Ferretbrain daily for the entire month of October (what the fuck am I thinking?).

Two films that really highlight the extremes of the set are the Dennis Wheatley adaptations included – The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter, both starring Christopher Lee. Wheatley’s garish horror novels could almost have been custom-written to be adapted by Hammer, since they shared with Hammer’s house style a weird combination of a very colourful and often lurid imagination and values which wouldn’t offend the British middle classes. As it stands, one of these films is a loyal adaptation of the source material that is an excellent example of the house style, whilst the other deviates wildly from its source novel, the Hammer ethos, and all standards of quality and good taste

Lee’s association with these films is no coincidence – as well as being the Hammer regular he was, he was actually the one who convinced Wheatley to let Hammer option three of Wheatley’s works – The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, and The Satanist – in 1963. It wasn’t until 1968 that the first one could be adapted – Hammer didn’t expect that they would be able to get the content past the censors beforehand – but it was such a runaway success that Hammer immediately… sat around for 8 years before putting out another adaptation of Wheatley’s populist demons-and-black-magic novels. Let it never be said that Hammer are highly regarded for their business decisions…

The Devil Rides Out

Hammer’s most famous and well-received Wheatley adaptation opens with a series of Satanic-looking occult diagrams superimposed over billowing smoke, presumably from whichever pipe Wheatley was smoking when he cooked up this story. The opening credits declare that the film is based on “the classic novel by Dennis Wheatley”, which implies something much more thoughtful and deep than “the ridiculous and trashy pulp novel by Dennis Wheatley”, which would have been a more honest way to characterise it. Still, it’s pretty clear that Hammer are taking their usual approach of turning the sensationalism up to 11 here, and to be honest that’s the sort of approach that the material cries out for.

Duke Nicholas du Richeleau (Christopher Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) are two aristocratic sorts who gad about the place in their private planes and their fine chauffeur-driven cars being posh. They and their pal Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) – the youngest of them, who the others make a point of looking out for since they were friends of his dad’s – meet up regularly to hang out and be posh, and when Simon fails to show up to their latest rendezvous Rex is put out. The Duke mentions that he hasn’t seen Simon for a good while either, so they decide to swing by his country mansion (have I mentioned how posh they are) to find that Simon is hosting a swanky party which they weren’t invited to – apparently for the “astronomical society” he’s joined, presided over by the mysterious Mocata (Charles Grey – yes, the one from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). The Duke has his suspicions, though – maybe it’s the talk of initiations, maybe it’s the intensely private nature of the astronomical society, maybe it’s the international crowd (“If Simon were in his right mind he’d never let a black person into his home!”), or maybe it’s the way Simon’s private observatory has live chickens in a basket in a cupboard and occult-themed illustrations on the wall and AN ENORMOUS MURAL OF A SATANIC GOAT ON THE FLOOR, but something just ain’t right.

The Duke confronts Simon, who confesses that he might have been kind of sort of worshipping Lucifer just a bit lately. When Simon refuses to be dissuaded from hanging out with the coven, the Duke does what any true friend would do and punches his lights out, kidnaps him, takes him to the Duke’s own home, hypnotises him, puts a cross about his neck and sends him straight to bed to think about what he’s done. “Aren’t you being a bit harsh?” asks Rex. “FUCK YOU, SATAN IS REAL!” yells the Duke. (Note: I am paraphrasing a little here.) When Simon is psychically forced to ditch the symbol of a religion he’s clearly abandoned and run away to go back to his own home which he’s been kidnapped from by two men who claim to be his friends, the Duke and Rex take it on themselves to do battle with Mocata’s Satanic coven in order to wipe their evil from the Earth and save Simon from making his own decisions as an informed and consenting adult.

To be fair to the film, it is pretty clear that Mocata rules over his cult with an iron fist and the members are in terror of their lives. The fact remains, though, that the Duke and Rex spring into action to do what they think is best for Simon before they establish that this is the case. Well, actually I should say that the Duke springs into action and Rex sort of bumbles along trying desperately not to trip over his own feet. Rex is incredibly incompetent and fails at almost every task the Duke sets for him, although he is at least able to take advantage of occasional bursts of good fortune (for example, when after a car crash he stumbles across the mansion the cult was meeting at, and manages to stow away as they head off to the Sabbath). His most incompetent moment comes late in the film, after he and the Duke have spirited away Simon and fellow reluctant initiate Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi) and are hiding out at a friend’s house. At one point, Mocata possesses her and tries to get her to return to the coven; Rex manages to stop her before she gets too far and ties her up to prevent it from happening again. After staying up to watch her all night like that, he unties her. Then she turns out to still be possessed. Rex sits mutely and watches her wander off rather than, oh, I dunno, wrestling her to the floor and tying her up again.

But then again, this is a film which these days should be watched for laughs if it’s watched at all. It’s fun precisely because it’s so incredibly ludicrous, and the cast, director (Terence Fisher) and scriptwriter (Richard Matheson of I Am Legend fame) all accept that and run with it. The Sabbath in the middle of the woods is amazingly, wonderfully stupid (apparently, what Satanists like to do most of all when they have a get-together is mosh sensuously to jazz, and if you chuck a crucifix at Satan he’ll explode), but the peak of the film has to be the nighttime sequence in which Christopher Lee gets three other characters to sleep on the cold wooden floor in the middle of a chalk circle to avoid being zapped by evil magic. Not only is it spectacularly silly but the various occult manifestations they have to grapple with includes some pretty good effects for a mid-60s horror B-movie, especially once giant spiders and the Angel of Death get involved.

The cast as a whole do a good job of getting into the spirit of things and delivering their dialogue without bursting into giggles. Christopher Lee playing a good guy for once is, of course, worth seeing, but I think the best acting on offer comes from Charles Grey, who is generally superb – especially in the scene where he’s talking to Mrs Eden and transitions perfectly smoothly from a forceful defence of his practices to hypnotising her. British viewers may note that Richard Eaton, the friend of the Duke and Rex whose house they use as a sanctuary from Mocata’s villainy during this sequence, is played by Yes Minister‘s Paul Eddington, and there’s something inherently amusing about watching Jim Hacker getting assailed by dark forces. (One especially daft point about the “magic circle” segment of the film is the fact that they don’t bring the Eatons’ child into the circle from the start of the process. Do they really think Satan will give her a free ride just because she’s little?)

The film is, of course, far from perfect. Calling Dennis Wheatley a fascist, whilst tempting, is inaccurate because he considered to fascism to be an upstart, newfangled ideology and therefore an object of suspicion. His conservative views harked back to a pre-war era of imperialist colonialism. He considered it natural and fitting, for example, that lesser (browner) nations should be guided by more civilised, whiter countries, and considered the end of the age of Empire to be a catastrophic abdication of responsibility on the part of the European powers. He was so convinced that the rise of a strong Labour government after World War II would herald a Stalinist dictatorship in the UK that he buried a “letter to posterity” on the grounds of his home urging future generations to form terrorist cells to ambush and murder government officials in order to dismantle the socialist machine. He was absolutely convinced that the social order as it existed in pre-War Britain was more or less perfect, and anything that undermined that was inherently bad – and so, in his writing, opposition to Royalty, the class system, and traditional morality is evil on a cosmological scale.

This is evident in his novels, and is not excised entirely from this adaptation. The forces of good are all white and European, whereas the Satanist coven is an international conspiracy comprised of representatives of all races. When the Duke and Rex are exploring Simon’s house – which has been abandoned by him and the cult – a guardian demon manifests, and the scariest guise it can come up with is the form of a black man in an orange loincloth. Everyone is extremely posh, the lower classes being either entirely invisible or entirely subservient. (The Eatons’ servants don’t get invited into the circle of protection either.)

The Devil Rides Out would be extremely uncomfortable viewing if it hadn’t lurched so firmly into realms of self-parody. Even then, I can definitely see how many viewers simply wouldn’t find its missteps to be very funny. And I defy anyone to find the deus ex machina ending at all satisfying or interesting. But as an example of a lurid view of Satanism and the occult that plays fast and loose with the facts and is unfailingly psychedelic, it’s downright hilarious.

To the Devil a Daughter

Christopher Lee reverts to being a villain in Hammer’s second adaptation of one of Wheatley’s black magic novels. Released in 1976, the film was a conscious attempt to compete with the latest generation of horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which had made Hammer’s own brand seem overly camp and tame. This may explain why, rather than being given to one of Hammer’s more veteran directors, the film was left in the hands of Peter Sykes, whose sole other directing credit for Hammer (Demons of the Mind) was also a very atypical work by their standards. (Though apparently, he was far from their first choice for the role, and was approached only after a large number of ideas were either rejected outright or didn’t pan out.) Although a new approach was arguably necessary in response to a market which Hammer was struggling to stay relevant in, the choice of subject matter was probably misguided – Wheatley’s novels really scream out for an approach which emphasises and embraces their ridiculousness, like in The Devil Rides Out as opposed to trying to give it the realistic spin that Hammer does here.

Lee plays Father Michael Rayner, who we see in the opening sequence being excommunicated from the Catholic Church twenty years before the main action of the film kicks off. (I don’t think excommunication ceremonies are actually attended in person by the excommunicant usually – though I suppose Rayner may have specifically shown up just to embarrass the officiating priests.) Undaunted by this rejection, Rayner began his own church, a splinter group called The Children of the Lord whose Catholic trappings hide the fact that their Lord has horns and lives in a hot place deep under the Earth.

Our hero, American author of trashy, sensationalist occult novels John Verney (Richard Widmark), is drawn into the schemes of the Children of the Lord when he is accosted at his latest novel’s launch party by Henry Beddows (Denholm Elliott), a desperately fearful member of the group who wishes to repent of his involvement with the group. Beddows promises to give Verney all the information he has about the cult – which would be fantastic material for Verney’s novels – if Verney will do him the favour of picking up his teenage daughter Catherine (Nastassja Kinski) from the airport, since she is visiting from Bavaria and should be kept away from Beddows whilst he completes his investigations for her own safety.

Verney agrees, against the advice of his friends Anna Fountain (Honor Blackman), his literary agent, and David (Anthony Valentine), Anna’s partner and the owner of the art gallery in which the book launch was hosted. (To be fair, Anna and David have a point – grabbing people from the airport just because a complete stranger claiming to be their father told you to sounds like a good way to get caught up in a people-smuggling ring). As it turns out, Beddows was not entirely honest with Verney; it’s not him the cult are after, it’s Catherine, for Rayner has raised her in his Bavarian convent to become a suitable vessel for Astaroth, the demonic entity the Children of the Lord serve. As rituals take place in parallel in Germany and Britain, leading up to Rayner’s intended baptism of Catherine on All Hallow’s Eve, Verney, David and Anna find themselves in a deadly struggle against Rayner, who commands all the forces of Hell at his disposal to return Catherine to him so that the dark rituals can be completed.

Early on, the film is remarkably solid, with the action cutting between Verney and his allies simply trying to do what’s best for Catherine and Rayner and his acolytes ritualistically preparing for the appointed hour. There’s a particularly nasty bit early on involving the birth of a mutant child linked with Catherine on a metaphysical level, so that the creature thus spawned can play a crucial role in the final ritual to impregnate Catherine with Astaroth’s spirit; this birth sequence involves the other, cult fanatic Margaret (Izabella Telezynska) being made to give birth tied down and with her legs lashed together, more or less guaranteeing that the process of childbirth would kill her. The sequence does an exceptional job of showing you something grotesquely nasty happening, and then creating the impression that there’s something unseen going on which is even more dreadful, as it cuts between Margaret’s roars of childbirth and Catherine shrieking and wailing in sympathetic pain with the devil-child.

This is exactly as grim as it sounds. It’s strong stuff, and it unfortunately sets up this misogynistic cosmology in which women are significant solely for either the use evil men want to put them to as motivators for good men to take up the fight. At the same time, it’s also just the sort of hard-hitting, unflinching stuff that Sykes’ mission to rehabilitate the Hammer brand called for. The film’s main problem is consistency. Some of its scares really hit the mark; there’s a part where Rayner works a spell on Henry over the telephone which works far better than it really should do, and represents a rare case of the campier Satanism of The Devil Rides Out being successfully updated for the purposes of the later film. Where David and Verney break into Beddows’ house to find him huddled in an attic room, cutting a pathetic figure in the middle of an amateurishly-drawn pentagram, is one of the few points where the openly campy elements and the more low-key presentation works. At the same time, some of the set-pieces just plain don’t work; for instance, the bit where Rayner spiritually manifests to Verney and knocks him out using a spotlight is just goofy, whilst the picture quality of DVDs means that when one character spontaneously combusts it’s quite obvious that the flaming figure we see a) isn’t the same guy and b) is wearing extremely thick and obvious protective clothing.

One long sequence about halfway through the film provides a particularly good example of how the film can occasionally descend into incoherence. The sequence involves a ritual in which Rayner and his cronies induce Catherine to leave Verney’s apartment so that their agents can seek her out – a ritual which at its heart involves flipping over plates with spooky pictures on them, which is exactly as goofy as half the stuff in The Devil Rides Out. Then there’s a bit afterwards in which Verney roughly drags her back to the apartment and yells at her about her religious beliefs, which looks a little too much like a domestic abuse scenario to avoid making me uncomfortable. Then there’s a flashback of a Satanist orgy in which Catherine is fucked by a golden statue of Astaroth whilst Christopher Lee fucks Margaret wearing a silly gold mask and we’re treated to various shots of spanking and humping cultists, and then it cuts back to the apartment where Catherine has a vision of the devilbaby in the mirror – represented by a puppet which looks more like an irritated red honey badger than some half-demon abomination. Then Verney hits her and now we’re back to nasty domestic abuse images, before he smashes the mirror and an astral fart blows in Christopher Lee’s thwarted face.

The rapid cutting between different places – the location of the magic plate ritual, Catherine and Verley, and Catherines own flashback – is confusing and disjointed enough, particularly when the tone within each of those individual scenes is so variable. (In particular, the sequence in the apartment veers awkwardly between more serious and grim fare like Verley hitting Catherine and Catherine having a screaming tantrum, and more overtly supernatural and accidentally silly stuff like the appearance of the puppet.) What makes it even worse is that each of those individual scenes has a tone which conflicts with the others – you have a ridiculously tame take on a Satanic ritual, an extremely eroticised take on a different one, and a sequence which but for the appearance of the honey badger puppet would look like an episode of mental illness on Catherine’s part.

Sykes simply fails to tie these events together to a sufficient extent to make them feel like they all fit in the same milieu, and that’s a failure which regularly crops up during the rest of the film. Adding insult to injury is the way that, after all that’s come before, the ending presents us with this enormous anticlimax in which Verney is able to beat Rayner almost trivially easily and the movie offers nothing in the way of a pay-off beyond a few colour filters on the camera, and the aftermath of the confrontation is wrapped up far too quickly. (It also introduces some needless inconsistencies; there’s a disturbing sequence leading into the final confrontation in which Catherine, in a trance, is physically united with the honey badger in about as gross a way as you can imagine, but the devilbaby is later sacrificed during the final ritual – so presumably the honey badger and the devilbaby were different entities, but that isn’t exactly made very clear to the audience.) Apparently, the ending was cobbled-together on the fly due to the originally-filmed ending being rejected at the last minute due to being deemed to be too similar to a previous Christopher Lee demise.

The acting this time around is also something of a mixed bag. Christopher Lee is a treat, as always, but Richard Widmark doesn’t convince as the protagonist – in particular, he has this nasty habit of only seeming to emote when he’s being cruel to someone, which is particularly unnerving in the bits where he’s hitting Catherine. The misogyny of the film is to a large extent only to be expected when you are dealing with a story based on the work of a hyper-conservative old Imperialist’s take on esoteric Christianity, but on the other hand Verley beating on Catherine to maintain control of her is far too much for me to retain much in the way of sympathy for him.

The big star of the show is Nastassja Kinksi, who is a real asset to the film and perhaps even outperforms Christopher Lee. The part where she lurches zombie-like through London under Rayner’s power is particularly good, and the shitfit she throws when Catherine has flashbacks and visions of the true nature of the cult at least proves that she’s inherited her father’s knack for turning in a really extreme performance. And anyone who can play through the scene where she gets intimate with a devilbaby puppet with a straight face deserves some sort of award. At the same time, there’s the mild problem that she was fourteen when she made this film, which makes scenes like her self-insertion of the honey badger and the highly sexualised bit in which she disrobes in front of Verley and Lee in order to try and seduce Verley into not disrupting the ritual kind of appalling.

The real gem of the DVD is the accompanying making-of documentary, which chronicles the shambolic production of the film. It’s particularly adorable for Christopher Lee talking about the Wheatley films as though they were doing a public service in advocating against real-life Satanism, as well as the glimpses you get of the movie that could have been. (Apparently Sykes wanted Klaus Kinski to be in the film too, which would have certainly given the cast a shot in the arm – though in retrospect, given recent revelations about Kinski I don’t think I could stomach a film in which he starred alongside one of his daughters – let alone one with the issues To the Devil has in its handling of Nastassja.) It also makes me really kind of hate Richard Widmark, in terms of his behaviour onset. (He apparently hit Nastassja Kinski for real during the tantrum scene in order to “help” her make some tears come.)

To the Devil a Divorce

As Christopher Lee reports in the making-of, Dennis Wheatley was utterly appalled by the film, writing it off as obscene and declaring that he’d never let Hammer adapt one of his works again. He needn’t have worried: though it did well at the box office, Hammer didn’t make much money out of it due to the cuts they had to pay out to the companies who’d financed it, and it failed to reverse the long decline they’d been in for much of the 1970s. After putting out one last movie – a remake of The Lady Vanishes which didn’t exactly measure up to the Hitchcock original – Hammer died a death, the brand only being revived in the late 2000s.

To a large extent, Hammer’s relationship with Wheatley represented an enormous missed opportunity. It’s frankly absurd that it took 8 years between The Devil Rides Out to To the Devil a Daughter for Hammer to produce a second Wheatley-brand black magic piece. They did release The Lost Continent, an adaptation of Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas, more or less simultaneously with The Devil Rides Out, but the comparative reception of the two films should have made it obvious where the money lay in Wheatley adaptations – Satanism, and lots of it. By waiting as long as they did to try and follow up The Devil Rides Out, Hammer more or less guaranteed that they would lose ground to more modern Satanic offerings like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist.

Then again, it took so long for Hammer to realise that their brand of horror was becoming stale that had they made To the Devil a Daughter in 1969, it’d probably resemble a rehash of The Devil Rides Out more than it does the film we actually got. On the other hand, if this saved us from watching Nastassja Kinski being abused onscreen and Christopher Lee being defeated by having a rock thrown at him, it’d be all to the good.

8 thoughts on “Hammer Rides Out

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