The actor Christopher Lee first met Dennis Wheatley in 1964 at the book department of Harrods where the author was giving a lecture entitled, “Magic and the Supernatural.” Wheatley was, at the time, one of the world’s bestselling novelists. His success was largely built on the popularity of a string of black-magic themed thrillers. Although he wrote across many pulp genres—swashbuckling adventure and espionage, historical romance and science fiction—his name became, and indeed remains, synonymous with the occult. Lee, then starring in the first wave of Hammer horror films, was attending the talk as a fan. When it was over he introduced himself to Wheatley and asked if he could have the author’s blessing to approach Hammer about adapting his 1937 novel, The Devil Rides Out.
It had been three decades since the book’s debut and during that time genre cinema had gone through a series of ups and downs. Following the decline of Hollywood monster movies in the 1940s, and the dominance of science fiction in the 1950s, it appeared by the end of the latter decade that gothic cinema was dead. Post-war fascination with space and the atom had banished supernatural themes almost entirely from popular culture. It was Hammer Films that reversed the trend. Starting in 1957, with The Curse of Frankenstein, the English production company resurrected the horror genre, breathing new life into the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy franchises, with Lee in the often thankless role of monster in each. By the early 1960s, a gothic revival was in full swing. Wheatley—“graciousness itself,” as Lee remembers—gave the actor complete authority to represent his book to the studio. Lee then began the long, surprisingly complicated process of selling it to producers Anthony Hinds and James Carerras.
The Devil Rides Out, like Wheatley’s first novel, The Forbidden Territory, features the Duke de Richleau, an aristocratic French exile living in then-contemporary Britain, who leads a modern band of “musketeers,” comprised of the American adventurer Rex Van Ryn, the English gentleman Richard Eaton, and the Jewish financier Simon Aron. These friends courageously charge into harm’s way to rescue one another and foil intrigues. The novel begins with the unusual absence of young Simon from a reunion with his friends, Rex and the Duke. Convinced that something must be wrong, the two gentlemen go immediately to Simon’s house where they find him hosting a reception for the “astronomical society” that he has recently joined. Although Simon is very anxious for his friends to leave before the meeting officially begins, the suspicious Duke mingles with the other guests, overhearing curious bits of conversation that leave him certain that something sinister is afoot. When he finds a satanic temple in Simon’s observatory, his suspicions are confirmed. He and Rex kidnap Simon before their young friend can be fully indoctrinated into the cult. From then on they are locked in a psychic battle with the satanists and their leader, Mocata. One lurid set piece follows another—car and airplane chases, demonic apparitions, mesmerism, women in peril, occult warfare, satanic orgies, a Tibetan monastery on the astral plane, and a black mass presided over by the horned, goat-headed Devil himself.
“It took me years and years to convince Hammer to make it,” Lee says, in his rich, distinctive baritone, “mainly because of all the censorship problems involved in dealing with satanism and the black mass. I had first mentioned The Devil Rides Out to Tony Hinds around 1964. At the time, I said to him, ‘You really ought to look into this, because it is very interesting material, and nobody has done this in England for years and years.’ So eventually Tony read the book and an arrangement was made for Hammer to buy the rights to film it.”
By late 1964 the company had optioned the novel. Hinds first commissioned a screenplay from author John Hunter, who had written one of Hinds’s own favorite pictures, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger. But Hunter’s screenplay was judged too “English” for the ever-lucrative American market, and was thus rejected. Next up was novelist Richard Matheson who had several years earlier been hired by Hammer to write an (ultimately un-produced) adaptation of his own vampire story, I Am Legend.
Matheson recalls that he had no previous knowledge of Wheatley’s work until Anthony Hinds sent him a copy of The Devil Rides Out. “I liked the novel very much,” he says, “so I agreed to write the script. Dennis Wheatley was certainly very happy with it. He sent me a letter thanking me for how faithful my adaptation was to his book.” Matheson’s screenplay cuts out some of the riskier and more expensive-to-film storylines—including Mocata’s plan to recover the phallus of Osiris, in order to start a second World War, and an airplane race across Europe—but he retains the story’s narrative thrust.
Lee was initially asked to play Mocata. As the actor recalls, “I told Hammer, ‘Look, enough of villainy for the time being, let us try something different and let me be on the side of the angels for once.’” In fact, he had already shown that he could play quite effective “good guys” in a number of films for the studio, including The Hound of the Baskervilles and Taste of Fear. Thankfully, Hammer agreed, and cast Lee as the Duke de Richleau. It is a role that no one else could have played—he is elegant, commanding, and humane—it is one of the finest performances of his career.
Hammer assigned their star director, Terence Fisher, to the project, and Charles Gray was cast to play Mocata. Gray gives the role a velvety smugness, suggesting an undercurrent of evil and obscenity beneath the surface. Lee says, “the casting definitely did work. I thought Charles Gray gave a marvelous performance as Mocata.” Wheatley based the character on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley. The two men knew each other socially, having been introduced by Wheatley’s neighbor—and Crowley’s onetime acolyte—the Labour MP Tom Driberg. Wheatley treated Crowley to a couple of lunches at the Hungaria Restaurant on Regent Street in the early 30s when he was researching The Devil Rides Out.
Although Lee never met Crowley, he is well versed on his life, claiming, “Crowley was an extraordinary man, who lived for a time at a house on the shores of Loch Ness, Boleskine, which is a very grim and foreboding place indeed. I know, because I went there. He was also one of the first people in history to climb a major Himalayan peak without any oxygen. He ran the ‘Abbey of Thelema,’ in Sicily, where he practiced obscene and blasphemous rituals, for which the police subsequently ejected him. He was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and called himself The Great Beast 666. He ended up living as a rather harmless old man, in the seaside town of Hastings, in England, after having labeled himself for many years as the wickedest man in the world.”
While Wheatley accepted the public role of occult expert, he was quick to dissuade members of the public from investigating the subject too deeply. “Don’t meddle!” was his official stance. In a disclaimer at the beginning of The Devil Rides Out he warns, “Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject […] I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.” Lee echoes these sentiments: “I have always been interested in black magic and know how terribly dangerous and obscene it can be. It is still practiced in different forms all over the world. The forces of evil are let loose, we know that. You’ve only got to look around to see that, so I think I know a good deal more about the practice of this particular evil than most people.”
Wheatley’s knowledge of the occult was supplemented by Lee, who conducted his own research. For example, Wheatley never provided the specific words of the dreaded (and fictional) “Sussamma Ritual,” which plays an important part in the climax of the film. As the Duke and his friend, Richard Eaton, are bombarded by black magic, huddled inside the safety of a magic circle, the following exchange takes place:
RICHARD: Can’t we do anything but just stand here? Isn’t there any way of fighting back?
DE RICHLEAU: Only one.
DE RICHLEAU: The last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual.
RICHARD: For God’s sake then, what are you waiting for?
DE RICHLEAU: I dare not use them until our very souls are in peril of destruction. To do so would destroy us as effectively as it would stop Mocata. It can alter time and space…
Drawing the suspense out to the breaking point, Fisher waits until the circle is about to be broken before cutting to De Richleau, who stands facing the onslaught, arms thrown up in the “Sign of Apophis and Typhon,” from the rituals of the Golden Dawn, finally delivering the dreaded lines: “Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta Zati Zata Galatim Galata.
This incantation comes from the Grimoire of Armadel, a book of ceremonial magic written in the 1600s. The version Lee consulted at the British Museum was apparently a copy of the original text held at the Bibliotheque d’Arsenal in Paris. Lee carefully chose eight key words from the “Operation of Uriel Seraphim,” a magical spell to put the Devil in a bottle, for “the last two lines of the Sussamma Ritual.”
The attention to detail appears to have filtered down to the art department, where Hammer’s resourceful production designer, Bernard Robinson decorated the various temple spaces with complex astrological and cabbalistic imagery. These touches of verisimilitude give the illusion of higher production values. Both Matheson and Lee agree that the special effects could have been improved upon, if only there had been more money available. “The whole scene where they’re protecting themselves from psychic attack should have been more of a scene,” complains Matheson. “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.” In Wheatley’s novel, what appears was “a Saitii manifestation of the most dangerous and powerful kind…which had a whitish pimply skin, leprous and unclean, like some huge silver slug.” This was deemed too difficult to shoot. Nor was it possible (or advisable—”Don’t meddle!”) to depict the black mass in any detail.
Not surprisingly, though, the eroticism was played up. After the success of Rosemary’s Baby, 20th Century-Fox re-named it The Devil’s Bride for the US release, quickly taking out trade ads that proclaimed, “There has never been so much interest in the Devil’s sex life as there is today! Make your arrangements for the wedding now.” Lee laughingly recalls that, “One of the executives at Fox, in all his wisdom, decided that if it were called The Devil Rides Out in America, everyone there would think they were going to see a western!”
Since its initial release many Hammer fans have come to regard The Devil Rides Out as the studio’s masterpiece. Lee has sometimes distanced himself from the work he did with Hammer. Of Dracula, the character and its legacy, he says, “I have no connection with it whatsoever, nor do I wish to have any. Nobody has ever made a movie about Dracula, from the book, exactly as Stoker wrote it. They’ve come close at times, but it’s never been done. The nearest I ever got was when I did Count Dracula in Spain, with Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski. I had a mustache and I even managed to say some of Stoker’s lines, but it was a mess, for production reasons.” His regard for The Devil Rides Out on the other hand is unequivocal. With effusive warmth, he declares, “It was a magnificent film, done in the best Hammer tradition.” Wheatley felt the same way. “Dennis was a very dear friend of mine,” Lee says, “He gave me a first edition of the book, signed by him, saying, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done to get this film made and also for your performance as the Duke de Richleau.’”
An earlier version of this article was published in the Quarterly Review in 2012.