Well, non-blog life unexpectedly threw me a loop, so the last movie in this year’s Holy Horrors For Halloween film festival is a few days late, but maybe some of you are still in the mood for some old fashioned thrills and chills.
“Adapted by Richard Matheson from a novel by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out admirably adopts a restrained approach to its horrific material. Christopher Lee plays a French nobleman, Duc De Richeleau, who is worried sick over the bizarre behavior of his friend Simon (Patrick Mower). Richeleau has every reason to be concerned: unless drastic measures are taken, Simon will lose his soul to Satan within three days. Two black masses are performed (one a bizarre Felliniesque orgy), but neither satiate the Devil's appetite. As the story races to its climax, it looks as though Richeleau's own niece (Rosalyn Landor) will have to be sacrificed. The film's best moments belong to Charles Gray, playing the charming, hypnotic leader of the devil cult which holds Simon in its thrall. The Devil Rides Out was released in the U.S. as The Devil's Bride.” ~ rovi’s AllMovie Guide
“I'm leaving. I shall not be back… but something will.” – Mocata
“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for [someone] to devour.” – 1 Peter 5:8, NABRE
Sadly, my first introduction to author Dennis Wheatley was the 1976 motion picture, “To The Devil A Daughter,” the movie which effectively brought to an end the original Hammer Films studio. Yes, it was that bad. In fact, Wheatley himself was so displeased with what he saw on screen, that he afterwards denied film rights to any more of his novels. And that’s a shame, because there were a lot of them.
Though his name doesn’t come up too often these days, Dennis Wheatley was once one of the most widely read authors in the world, publishing over 70 books and selling over 50 million copies. He wrote in a variety of genres, including a series of spy novels which would inspire Ian Fleming to create James Bond, but it was his books about the world of Satanism which would bring Wheatley his widest audience. It was also just such subject matter that kept his writings from being adapted to the big screen until the late 1960s, the British censors not being too keen on devil worship. But Christopher Lee was a friend and a fan of Wheatley’s, and in 1968, Hammer’s biggest star finally convinced the studio to film an adaptation of “The Devil Rides Out.”
Without a doubt, the results of Hammer’s first foray into the world of Satanism is markedly different from their later swan song. In fact, “The Devil Rides Out” is often counted among the best of Hammer’s horrors and for pretty good reasons. Chiefly among them is Christopher Lee, who is at his finest as the no-nonsense Duc De Richeleau, a man whose faith and arcane knowledge make him a match for most anything this side of Moloch.
Richeleau just gets the job done. When he shows up to help rescue Simon from a cult of devil worshippers and the mesmerized young man seems reluctant to leave, Richeleau simply punches him in the face and carts the unconscious Simon to safety. Richeleau’s coat pockets always seem to be full of an assortment of crosses and bottles of holy water just in case some minor demon suddenly appears, which they inevitably do. And when a helpful ghost shows up to offer aid, Richeleau first makes it acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, just to make sure it is who it says it is. None of those nasty spirits who hang around Ouija boards will ever get the drop on Richeleau.
Of course, what’s a good hero without a worthy villain? Fortunately, Charles Gray (yes, the criminologist from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) as Mocata, the high priest of the satanic cult which is trying to entrap the souls of Richeleau’s friends, is up to the task. He’s all charm and smiles no matter the situation, be it seizing control of people’s minds, leading a black mass/orgy in the middle of the woods, or summoning creatures from the pits of Hell to murder his enemies.
Speaking of which, if “The Devil Rides Out” has one obvious flaw, it’s the quality of the creature effects. While some things look okay, such as the goat-headed Satan who drops by one of Mocata’s dark liturgies, others like the giant tarantula or the bat-winged mount of the Angel of Death barely rise above what you might find in a typical episode of “Lost In Space.” Still, the budgetary limitations are no deal killer. Like Richeleau, they get the job done.
The highlight of the movie is the extended battle which takes place over the course of a single night. Knowing that Mocata intends to kill them before sunrise, Richeleau and his friends lounge about inside a protective circle they’ve drawn on the floor, sipping wine and discussing the reality of the situation while they await whatever horrors Mocata is sending against them. One by one, various entities appear to test the foursome with all the tricks the Devil has at his disposal. They must survive fear, doubt, temptation, lies and, of course, bodily harm. Though the others come close to succumbing, Richeleau himself never wavers, driving back and banishing each new threat. I’m as enamored of Lee’s portrayals of villains as the next guy, but watching Lee fend off fiend after fiend really made me wish he had taken a few more turns as the hero. It’s easy to see why Lee had wanted to make this movie for so long.
The interesting thing is, just as Hammer and other studios were giving in and starting to make movies about devil worshiping Satanists, Satanism in the real world was actually undergoing efforts to remove the devil. The original form of Satanism, worship of the being known as Satan, goes all the way back to biblical times. By St. Matthew’s account, Ol’ Scratch even took a shot at getting Jesus to bend a knee to him…
“Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.’ At this, Jesus said to him, ‘Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” Matthew 4:8-10, NABRE
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. describes this kind of cultic Satanism as an effort “to obtain benefits for oneself or others from the devil. But the devil may also be invoked in order to obtain, if you please, not exactly benefits but harm, injury for someone against whom, well I, have ill feeling and whom I want somehow to injure or if possible to destroy.”
Obviously, if you watch the news, you know that such devil worshiping cults are still around. But more often than not, the majority of Satanists you run into these days are of a different stripe. This new style of Satanism really began to take root in 1969, shortly after the release of “The Devil Rides Out,” when former carny and nightclub performer Anton Lavey published “The Satanic Bible,” a hodge podge of essays and rituals meant to reimagine Satanism as an atheistic philosophy.
As noted on the homepage of the Church of Satan, Lavey’s Satanic Bible made the claim that “Man—using his brain—invented all the Gods, doing so because many of our species cannot accept or control their personal egos, feeling compelled to conjure up one or a multiplicity of characters who can act without hindrance or guilt upon whims and desires. All Gods are thus externalized forms, magnified projections of the true nature of their creators, personifying aspects of the universe or personal temperaments which many of their followers find to be troubling. Worshipping any God is thus worshipping by proxy those who invented that God. Since the Satanist understands that all Gods are fiction, instead of bending a knee in worship to—or seeking friendship or unity with—such mythical entities, he places himself at the center of his own subjective universe as his own highest value. We Satanists are thus our own ‘Gods,’ and as beneficent ‘deities’ we can offer love to those who deserve it and deliver our wrath (within reasonable limits) upon those who seek to cause us—or that which we cherish—harm.”
So now, thanks to Lavey and his pals, we’ve got theistic Satanists and atheistic Satanists, plus some other splinter groups of Satanists who can’t quite make up their mind either way. But while such distinctions may be important from a nitpicking standpoint, it really makes little difference when considering the big picture. When discussing the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” the Catechism explains that “Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.” This means that in terms of idolatry, all forms of Satanism are basically the same thing.
Still, from a public relations standpoint, you have to give the atheistic Satanists their due. Pure self aggrandizement is unflattering, but it has to sound a lot better to the general public than human sacrifice and summoning demons. But don’t let the shiny new package fool you. Idolatry is idolatry no matter what form it comes in. The Duc De Richeleau would surely see through such deceptions. So should we.