The following is a guest post by the one and only Reverend StarDoG, Steve Mills, which nicely pairs with the recent Universal Monster movie post for your Halloween horror reading pleasure... while the prior post focused on American horror films from the 30s through the 50s, the good Rev takes on a journey with some British cinematic perspective in his own inimitable way.
It's that time of the year again, and with it comes endless lists of films appropriate to the current Halloween season. One of those films that will appear as a suggestion is one considered as amongst the best of the infamous Hammer studios' output- That film being The Devil Rides Out from 1968, starring Christopher Lee in a rare outing as a "heroic figure" rather than his usual "baddie".
The Devil Rides Out is what it is; square-jawed, righteous ex-war heroes giving the most powerful "evil deity" in Christian folklore a sound thrashing before changing actual history and having the girl with the slight speech defect fall into the dashing young hero's arms. The viewer is left with the incredibly reassuring knowledge that, despite being an "Ipsissimus" of the highest level, they are no match for a completely naïve year 4 girl who can recite some ancient incantation.
That is, it is wholly of its time, being the last gasp of the post war "Boys own adventure" style films before dastardly reality interrupted and film makers, even in the adventure horror genre, decided to "grow up" a little bit and introduce something akin to nuance within their characters. ...Rides Out is a great romp, probably closer in manner to Indiana Jones than The Exorcist however, if you scratch the surface and investigate the work it hails from, there are issues and they are, unfortunately, quite serious issues.
The book was first published in 1934. The author Dennis Wheatley claimed to have "studied the esoteric arts" and as per usual back then, warned the reader about dabbling in the "black arts". It is there you have your first serious issue. What is it that makes Dennis Wheatley able to cope with studying the "black arts" and his readership unable to do likewise? The simple answer to that is this: because Dennis Wheatley is an "educated middle class white bloke from the UK", which makes them instantly and naturally "superior" to the rest of the world. There is nothing unusual about this, Wheatley was of his time and at that particular time, the British Empire still existed - if in a rapidly declining state - and people such as Wheatley had been brought up to think exactly that.
In the likes of Wheatley's mindset, the entire world needed to be "guided" by white upper/middle class blokes or it would descend into chaos. That was the prevailing mindset in the UK in the 1930s and we're still dealing with the toxic fallout from that mindset today in the shape of dinosaurs a la Boris Johnson, who openly bemoans the self-determination of our ex-colonies. He's that much of a reactionary fossil. Lee's character espouses this exact attitude I have outlined time and time again throughout the film. He treats everyone else as some sort of "child" when it comes to the esoteric arts, whilst propagating such completely simplistic balderdash as "The hours of darkness are when evil is at its most exalted". I mean seriously, if that's the baseline level of your "understanding of the esoteric doctrines", I doubt a brain damaged bad Bobo the Clown tribute act would have much difficulty outsmarting you.
Sadly, it goes downhill from there. To understand, one has to understand an attitude and belief that was often seen as not being racist back then that to a contemporary mind appears as quite obviously racist- the theory of "racial separatism". Crudely put, this was the "theory" that all races should live apart and enjoy their own cultures and mixing them would lead to all races becoming somehow "defiled and degraded". This sort of prurient dribble is still espoused by many of those on the right today and is often ingrained inside cultural, rather than racial, attitudes world wide. This is not merely a "white European thing", it exists in virtually every culture where the concept of a "global family" appears to threaten local traditions that enshrine a particular cultural group and/or gender based dominance at the expense of everyone who is different.
To give an example of what I mean, I had a friend who resigned from a world wide charity when they refused to condemn "female genital mutilation" as they viewed it as "culturally sensitive" and something they could not comment on. Funnily enough, almost the entire managing board of that charity were, at the time, white middle aged males.
Well thanks for the cultural history outline DoG, now what's the relevance to The Devil Rides Out? Well, there's one example that is in the book and not in the film which is, no matter how you view it, horrifically racist and another that is in both the film and the book that, at first glance seems fairly innocuous, that is however, insidiously racist, ableist and sexist in tone.
Early in the story Christopher Lee's and Leon Greene's characters gate-crash their friend Patrick Mower's character's "astronomy group" to discover that Mower is dabbling in the occult and that, the astronomy group is, in realty, a "coven". Here Wheatley shows their ignorance by conflating the "Witchcraft coven" with Satanism however, as that's par for the course in the 1930s we'll let that one slide. Lee and Greene trigger a guardian "demon" whilst exploring the house and in the book this is where the truly horrendous spectre of unbridled racism raises its ugly head. The "demon" guardian is a Djinn and Wheatley immediately shows their complete ignorance and unconscious racism by the assumption that all Djinn are intrinsically "evil". Djinn., in reality, are a very complex folklore tradition and can range from totally benign to outright dangerous and all points in-between. However, as they're not from the "Christian tradition" Wheatley in their ignorance ignores that and just resorts to a cheap pop culture stereotype. Worse still, in the book, though not in the film, Wheatley describes the Djinn as having, and I shall paraphrase here, "The true evil soul of a darkie"........ Yes, folks, you read that right, un-trammelled outright racist filth.
That brings us to the "coven" sic and this illustrates my point about separatism being seen as "not actually racist". The make up of the coven are people from all over the world, both male and female including, in the film, a person with a disability. In short, the coven is proudly and overtly multicultural and those cultures are seen mixing effortlessly at the pre-celebration soiree. This is, of course, an anathema to Wheatley and in reality is presented as the very root of the corruption of these people- That is, mixing with non-Christian European traditions leads to corruption and evil. Sadly, that message underpins the entire story once you look more than simply at the surface level. The true message of the book and film is that non-whites, women and the disabled need middle and upper class white males to guide them or they will end up seduced into evil.
The only "salvation" is through Christianity processed via upper and middle class white blokes because only they have the proper mindset to understand the world, and in particular anything pertaining to the "supernatural". That's exactly what Churchill and many of those in the UK establishment whole heartedly believed when The Devil Rides Out was first published in 1934 and that is the true message of the film made in 1968 whether they realised it or not.
There's a level I can still enjoy the film on as a "great romp" however, that doesn't mean I am blind to the ableism, sexism and racism that riddles and underpins the entire project. It sells the ridiculous concept that, simply by uttering a few words one can set the world to rights , so long as those words are acceptable to a white European 40 something male. Funny isn't it that, that's almost exactly the same utter simplistic racist. sexist, ableist dribble being pushed by the intellectually challenged likes of Elon Musk?
There's a funny irony as well with regards to the film. On many channels when it's shown there is no commensurate warning about any of the subject matter whereas the far superior 1957 movie Night Of The Demon always comes with an apology about "outdated racial portrayals". The reality is, Night Of the Demon is almost infinitely less racist in tone than The Devil Rides Out.
|Bobo the Clown, aka Karswell, in Night of the Demon|