Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Victory in Horror

One of the toughest aspects about being a writer or creator is dealing with a cautious audience and tackling tricky subject matter without being needlessly flippant or aggressive. It is difficult to forget that not everyone sees things the same as you do i your field. Creative types take those that insult their entire line of work very seriously, which can lead to a divorce in the audience and those making the art due to miscommunication. Art exists to connect--artists shouldn't want to sever that connection. Unfortunately, one never knows how far the audience will follow them.

So perhaps this post might make a few uncomfortable. All I can say is to please read it to the end. I promise it is going somewhere.

Take the horror genre, for instance. It's especially touchy to talk about for those who take grave spiritual matters seriously. This is fine, since spiritual matters are of utmost importance, and should be discussed. However, what does not help is the dismissal of an entire genre of art as useless, degenerate, or evil. Despite no matter how you explain it, there are those who do not want to engage with it. We all have our own tastes, but I do wish to make something clear about it.

Horror is not pornography, and you will find very few horror stories (that aren't terrible or bottom of the barrel trash) that will glorify evil at the expense of the good. The very best in the genre reinforces the good by showing how ultimately powerless evil is in the face of true opposition. Ultimately, the genre is a celebration of light over dark.

Horror isn't for everyone, of course, as its subject matter is not for the faint of heart, and there are those who misunderstand its intent as a way to celebrate degeneracy and carnage, but the original point of horror is beyond either of those things. Having its roots in fairy tales and marchen romance will do that. The genre is about the opposite of destruction and the victory of evil--it's about reinforcement of the good. All the best horror tales get this right. The ones that don't? They aren't horror, they're pornography for violence lovers. They don't stand up for a reason.

The two biggest aspects that build horror up are two things: the importance of rules and societal strength, and the ultimate victory of even the simplest flicker of good against a powerful wave of evil. You engage in a horror story for the same reason you read fairy tales: to fortify the good. Horror that doesn't do either of these things, fails. Without exception.

One of the biggest believers in this concept was director Terence Fisher, responsible for some of the best horror movies ever made. He directed 50 films ranging from 1948 to 1972 (the last was later released in 1974), he only died a few years later in 1980. In other words, directing was his whole life and vocation.

Mostly he began his career creating pulp thrillers with titles like A Song for Tomorrow, Wings of Danger, and Blood Orange. They were mostly standard for the time, but it was steady work. In the late 1950s he began to make horror movies for Hammer Films, and that would end up defining his career, and his later life. Near half of his 50 film output was spent on this genre with the occasional adventure, fantasy, or science thriller picture, because they are all related genres anyway. It isn't as if his work in noir crime didn't prepare him for horror. They have many similarities with each other, as most in the adventure genre do.

Regardless, his horror films are the ones he is most known for today. And that is the subject of this piece. Today I would like to talk to you about my personal favorite horror movie, one that Mr. Fisher directed, and one that deserves far more attention that it gets. It is a classic, but it is somehow still obscure. I hope to help change that.

But before we get there we should start at the beginning.

One of the biggest names in the horror genre was, and still is, Hammer Films, a British film company that operated from 1934-1979 (yes, starting from the pulp era) which specialized in horror of the older sort. Gothic tales and stories of the eerie over the explicit and profane. You might even recognize some of the actors that made their name there from Christopher Lee to Peter Cushing to Oliver Reed: there are many actors and creators from the era that we go on to do many more exciting things, even after Hammer closed its doors in 1979. For a long time, Hammer was the name for horror, due to their staunch traditional view of the genre and their insistence to treat it with respect and reverence.

Ironically enough, what killed Hammer was the explosion of grotesque and nihilistic horror in the late 1960s and early 1970s such as Rosemary's Baby and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These sorts of movies ended up changing the market towards more explicit content, and by the start of the 1980s consumed the genre. True horror couldn't compete in this era of decadence, so they could do little but fold. It didn't help that most of their later films simply weren't very good, but they were probably running low on inspiration at the time.

Yes, they died before the big horror boom in the 1980s, probably one of the biggest missed opportunities in all of film. There was nothing to be done about it. Their time was simply up. It happens.

However, time is a very strange mistress, and due to the passage of time and the death of horror as a viable genre by the '00s, many had begun looking back on the past and taking stock of what worked. From what I can muster, you can tell the enthusiasm for what worked in film by what gets the most attention with a modern Bluray re-release. The two things that always seem to sell out fast are '80s horror movies and Hammer films. They also take up the majority of the discussion online. The "dated" nature of the films has come around to the point where they have aged far better than most of the competition that outsold them back in the day. Truth always wins.

So what is it that Hammer did that worked so well? How are they looked back on so fndly despite being so criticized for being out of touch, tired, and out of date? That is the subject of this post--that favorite horror film I wanted to talk about.

Today we will be taking a look at the 1968 Hammer horror movie, The Devil Rides Out. This is an occult adventure movie about the dangers of the dark and the ultimate victory of the light. It is the anti-Rosemary's Baby, except it has aged far better. Another interesting fact is that they both released in the same year.

Our Heroes

The Devil Rides Out is based on a book by Dennis Wheatley, in particular the second in his Duke de Richleau series, a series of eleven novels that ran from 1933-1970. Unlike other series characters such as Seabury Quinn's occult detective Jules de Grandin, Wheatley's series did not have a set genre it was required to operate in. The first book was an adventure story called Forbidden Territory and was adapted to film way back in 1934. The Devil Rides out is the second book in the series, and is vastly different in style from the first. Just as was common in the pulp era, genre wasn't so set in stone. This story could have run in Weird Tales, it is so bizarre.

It most likely took so long to adapt due to the subject matter, which is very tricky and was not one mainstream filmmakers were keen with taking on, especially in the 1930s. This doesn't even take in to account the level of special effects that would have to go into it just to make an adaption work on a basic level. This would be a nightmare to adapt at any other time. It's hard to imagine now, but pulp was far more ambitious and big than what film could allow before studios like Hammer came around. Much of this just couldn't be done.

Nonetheless, it took until the '60s for a proper adaption of Wheatley's second book, and what an adaption it was! Hammer pulled out all the stops for this one, getting Terence Fisher (The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Earth Dies Screaming) as director, and casting Christopher Lee in one of his best roles (and few as a protagonist!) as the Duke among the rest of the perfectly cast ensemble. They went in hard on this picture, sparing no expense. It should also be mentioned that this adaption was penned by Richard Matheson, of all people, so that should help explain its masterful transition from page to screen.

The story starts with one of the Duke's friends coming to him with a problem. His son seems to have gotten himself involved in something strange. Richleau investigates and finds the young man is involved in the occult, in specific a cult worshiping a demon named Bahomet. Now the Duke plots to get him out and escape without getting himself or the young man killed. What follows after this is daring escapes, spiritual attacks, odd monsters, fights, and time travel (!) along the way to the stunning conclusion. I don't want to spoil the finer details of the plot except to say that you are not going to guess where it's going, and where it goes is quite incredible, especially for a movie from the late '60s when nihilism was all the rage in film. 

I should probably tackle the elephant in the room, which is the demonic part of the plot. This is going to make some wary, but it should be explained first.

It can't be stressed enough that the evil in this movie is treated as evil, there is no ambiguity here except when it involves questioning how deep someone might have fallen under the cult's influence. The main character uses a cross to make a demon explode (yes, that happens and it is one of the best scenes ever put to film), and one plot point involves turning a coven into a church. Then there is the denouement. The entire movie is a reinforcement of good over the inevitable failure of evil. This subject matter can make the movie hard to watch for some, and it doesn't need explicit content to do it, either. However, it is in service of good.

In case you are unaware, the writer of the novel and the director were both Christians, faithful Anglicans, so you won't see much in the way of celebrating degeneracy. They aren't Roman Polanski or the crowd he ran in.

From wikipedia's page on Fisher:

"Given their subject matter and lurid approach, Fisher's films, though commercially successful, were largely dismissed by critics during his career. It is only in recent years that Fisher has become recognised as an auteur in his own right. His most famous films are characterised by a blend of fairytale myth and the supernatural alongside themes of sexuality, morality, and "the charm of evil". Drawing heavily on a Christian conservative outlook, there is often a hero who defeats the powers of darkness by a combination of faith in God and reason, in contrast to other characters, who are either blindly superstitious or bound by cold, godless rationalism."

And in regards to a later adaption of his work, Wheatley detested it for being obscene. This helps put what happens in The Devil Rides Out into context, since its subject matter is intense yet covered respectfully. Just before he died he received conditional absolution from his friend, the Bishop or Peterborough, and he spent his life warning about the evils of dark spiritual forces.

In fact, according to wikipedia:

"He came to be considered an authority on Satanism, the practice of exorcism, and black magic, toward all of which he expressed hostility."

Wheatley also believed Communism was created by satanic power, so you know he's a true believer in what he writes.

I also don't want to spoil it, but the final line of the film is as far from Rosemary's Baby-style nihilism and a reaffirmation of everything listed above about the writer. Good is not going to roll over for evil, not like Polanski would have wanted it to.

Suffice to say, these two individuals are a good part of the reason the film never veers off course in its morality, just as Matheson's tight adaption and Lee's tremendous performance keeps your eyes glued to the screen. The film flies by a confident pace, always knowing where it needs to be, and the actors help tremendously in holding the viewer's attention. In fact, Christopher Lee considered this one of his favorite roles. He was not wrong.

What also contributes is the amount of action, from car chases to fist fights, spiritual attacks and monsters, to heroic characters and seedy villains, all flying at you at a pace that other such films wouldn't have until the 1980s. It's pulp of the best sort, and a reminder of the potential such a fun first mindset can have, even in a horror story about the conflict between good and evil.

As for faults, there are few. No movie is perfect, though this does come close.

The special effects are not going to wow those used to modern CG or even the perfection of practical effects from the 1980s, but they are remarkably effective and evocative regardless. The imagery is no less disturbing just because Tom Savini isn't handling makeup. You just have to keep in mind that effects were limited right now.

I also wouldn't recommend showing this to children. It's too intense and the themes are to tall for kids to properly see the top of. This is an affair for older audiences only.

Another sticking point some are going to have is the ending, and I mean the way the characters reach it. Some consider it to convenient, or a deus ex machina, and your mileage might vary. However, it is not quite typical for this sort of story.

It really isn't that controversial, however. If you keep in mind the movie is about the battle between good and evil and how arrogant, overconfident, and stupid, evil can get at its peak then it works just fine. But if you were expecting a grand sword-fight or gun battle where the Duke shoots the villain through the heart then you might be disappointed. The ending isn't like that. Though one should keep in mind that a final confrontation in a story is about summing up the greater themes from the work, and such a violent ending would not be in tone with what the heroes were trying to accomplish throughout. It would be at odds with the events of the plot.

That said, the end probably could have been stronger, but I can't complain about what we got from this ending. At the very least, you aren't going to see much else like it.

And that's the takeaway here. There isn't much like this movie, and I highly recommend seeing it, especially in this season where we celebrate Good's ultimate triumph over evil. This is why we engage in the genre to begin with.

The Devil Rides Out is the ultimate battle between good and evil and how that might go deeper than we first expect it will. It's masterfully directed, perfectly written, expertly acted, and phenomenally paced. You will not see any other movie like this, especially not from the modern film industry. Much of this comes from the Gothic influence and the morality prepackaged in it, but the genre itself is so far from its roots these days that such a film is incapable from coming out of the minds of modern producers. Don't expect anything like this coming from the mainstream.

But that's fine. Independents and NewPub can take it from here.

Gothic is the beating bloody heart of horror. The battle between good and evil is perilous, dangerous, and unsettling. Everybody isn't comfortable with that, and it's understandable, but to dismiss an entire genre that has so much to offer is simply wrong. We need to be reminded of we are are and what we aren't. Considering this is the season right before we celebrate the ultimate victory of Good, it is imperative to remember what we are up against.

So this Halloween do your part and celebrate the ultimate powerlessness of horror against the normal. Evil has already lost and that is something that we should all be reminded of over and over. Good has already triumphed, so cheer up! We only have to make it to the end to see for ourselves.

It goes without saying that you should see this movie. I can't recommend it more highly.

I'll see you next time when I go through another season appropriate subject. For now, have yourself a fun time and remember that good things are on the way. Times are changing. Don't forget the spirit of the season: triumph!

And triumph is what NewPub is all about.


  1. I am often astonished that I've never once heard of an author as popular as Dennis Wheatley before. This is far from the first time. I'll have to keep an eye out for his books.

    1. I've never read the book, but considering how much he approved of the movie I'd guess it's worth reading.

    2. Caveat lector: The movie is considerably more overtly Christian, less syncretist, and less occult-oriented than the book, which includes a subplot about the 'thirteenth piece' of Osiris, among other things.

    3. I've read his first two Duc de Richlieu books and I've found them very entertaining. The Forbidden Territory is a fast-paced espionage/adventure story that has some sadly still quite relevant observations about communism, and The Devil Rides Out does similar for its more occult subject matter (as the movie review indicates, it's a bit bigger than the film, and the ending is rather different). I've read numerous back-handed or outright negative reviews of Wheatley's work, but at least as far as the books of his I've read, I've found them irrelevant (I suspect there's a political motivation behind a lot of his criticism).

      I love the film adaptation - it's one of my favorite Hammer films. I've recently seen the first couple of Conjuring movies and while I wouldn't say they're first-tier classics, they do capture some of the old Hammer feeling in their depiction of mature, faith-driven adults representing Good in triumphing over Evil (minus the voluptuous women in low-cut gowns).

    4. Thanks for the clarifications, guys! I was unaware of how contentious he was. Mr. Wheatley sounds like a strange fellow.

  2. The Hammer films I remember from my childhood also featured a good bit of voluptuous women in Victorian nightware. The chaste but hot look was always sexier than the R rated topless stuff of the 1980's.

    1. Sexuality is a tool, and Gothic horror knew how to use it.

  3. An excellent film! Thanks for reminding us of it, and in time for Halloween!

    1. You're welcome! More people should be watching this one.