The Devil Rides Out
& Satanis: The Devil's
Mass, Reviewed January 28, 2020
Comparing a panicky, Satanism-oriented horror movie to a documentary about the Church of Satan
her husband (John Cassavetes) becomes friendly with Satanists living in their new apartment building, there was a surge in Satanism-fixated genre films. The villains in most of them were people who participated in witchy, sacrifice-prone rituals. Typically, things would culminate in members chanting, “hail, Satan!” in unison. Sometimes a figure, traveling from the annals of Hell, I guess, would appear.
Among the most overwrought of this kind of film is The Devil Rides Out (1968), a stylish, almost manically panicky thriller. (To be fair it was ahead of the curve in terms of the late-‘60s Satanism upswing: it had been in development since 1963.) Based on a 1934 novel by Dennis Wheatley, the 1929-set movie stars Christopher Lee as Nicholas,
Duke de Richleau — one of the few high-profile heroic roles Lee would take on in his 60-year-long career. An investigator (or something like that), Nicholas has been galvanized to look into the weird behavior of a young friend of his named Simon (Patrick Mower) as the film opens. Early in the movie, Nicholas, accompanied by associate Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), arrive at an upper-crust party Simon is attending. We learn that Nicholas suspects Simon has fallen in with Satan-worshippers. The people throwing the fête, which is being hosted at a sprawling mansion teeming with off-kilter iconography, are the Satan-worshippers in question.
This movie would unmistakably not be called The Devil Rides Out if Nicholas’ guess proved wrong. The film’s conceit entails that soon he, Rex, and other trustworthy people in their circle rescue Simon and another initiate (a naif named Tanith played by Nike Arrighi) from officially becoming Satanists. The feature intimates that they haven’t gotten involved with the group on their own accord but rather because of the force of the group’s cat-eyed, hypnotism-prone leader, Mocata (Charles Gray). (Several of the movie’s designed-to-be-spine-chilling scenes involve him putting people in a trance and getting them to do his bidding.)
The Devil Rides Out has a handful of neat set pieces: a car chase through the countryside between Rex and a Mocata-hypnotized Tanith; a ritual featuring a cameo from a goat-man whom I venture to guess is the Devil himself; and a climactic sequence during which Nicholas and company
congregate in a sacred circle as demonic figures, like a 10-sizes-too-big tarantula and the Skeletor-looking Fourth Horseman, try to attack them. The film’s most memorable passages are well-constructed by Hammer beat director Terence Fisher and writer Richard Matheson. The Devil Rides Out, though, effects no real suspense.
There’s a strange sanctimoniousness to The Devil Rides Out; it would rather tell us why its good guys think Satanism is bad and scary, from an unsaid but certainly motivating Christian perspective, than reveal any of the trivia explaining said badness and scariness. So in line with the to-come Satanic-Panic ethos is The Devil Rides Out (it’s essentially an anti-Satanism propaganda movie) that I finished the movie less disturbed by what I just saw and more so interested in doing what the feature seemed to specifically not want me to do. I had an itch to educate myself about the belief system it’s demonizing (no pun intended) and find out if it’s really quite as terrible as The Devil Rides Out and other (much less) highly strung occult thrillers portray it.
From 1968's The Devil Rides Out.
o right afterward I put on a documentary about the Church of Satan, which in turn reminded me of the obvious fact that as it goes with any religion, there’s no one singular rendering of Satanism. (It’s agreed by
historians, though, that the church made for the first organization of its kind; the administration has itself denied that other Satanist groups should be recognized as such.) The cabal in The Devil Rides Out would be considered theistic, extremist Satanists; it would likely be characterized by the majority of other factions as monstrous, in part due to its penchant for animal and human sacrifice. One thing most "mainstream" atheistic and theistic Satanists agree on — and they don’t agree on many things — is that sacrifice is aberrant. The cadre in The Devil Rides Out probably hews closest to the Order of the Nine Angles group, which extols the virtues of human sacrifice, fawns over evil (e.g., Hitler’s reign), and is above all else very secretive.
But since at the time The Devil Rides Out came out the Church of Satan was the primary Satanist group about town, I thought it’d be fascinating to draw similarities between the cinematic nightmare and its closest everyday equivalent. How might the viewing experience of the former feature distort in my mind with some additional knowledge?
The documentary was shot in 1970, released on video in 2003, and is called Satanis: The Devil's Mass. It’s a flatly shot and a lot of the time tedious movie. But it’s worth watching, I think, because it underscores just how much misinformation and movies like The Devil Rides Out
dissuade truth-, and nuance-, seeking. The theistic and radical tenets (albeit never precisely detailed tenets) seen in The Devil Rides Out are in any case unappealing. But I’d like to think most people, like myself, might finish Satanis and find that the version of Satanism seen here isn’t quite as bad as one might have suspected. Some things about it are unexpectedly kind of appealing.
The documentary, helmed by Ray Laurent, is mostly a chance for the leader of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and his followers to explain themselves. The film features talking-head interviews with people living near the church, too. Some commend its commitment and sense of freedom; most others would agree with a woman on the street who at one point exclaims, “I think they’re nuts.” Mormon missionaries and Christian priests also get a chance to speak. But of more importance is finding out what exactly the LaVey Satanists believe in and giving viewers an inside look at some of the rituals in which LaVey’s disciples
We learn that, in essence, the Church of Satan is built on the principle of anti-self-deceit — that you should never not do something you’d like to because of a feeling of guilt, whether that guilt is rooted in social mores or the fears instilled by a different religion. LaVey’s Satanism doesn’t actually beget Devil-worship, nor does it think an afterlife is real (though some followers do). All the stuff worried about by movies like The Devil Rides Out and the subsequent cultural Satanic panic would be condemned. The rituals are certainly uncanny — usually, there are live animals like snakes and nudity involved. But you can appreciate what LaVey is trying to do here: build a religion that waxes lyrical about celebrating who you want to be. “If you want to be a sinner, be the best sinner on the block,” LaVey says.
The version of Satanis that we get probably didn’t need to be a feature-length movie. After a while its revelations start to have a repetitiveness to them. If it were a better feature — which I’m not sure it could have been in 1970 with such little financial support, commercial potential, and directorial finnesse — it might have explored not just the minutiae of the religion as it stands but how it got to where we see it. What about the texts of controversial titans like Ayn Rand and Friedrich Nietzsche were especially instrumental to putting in LaVey a determination to found his influential Satanist model? But that Satanis is a little dull inadvertently
helps normalize a misunderstood organization: it isn’t doing anything that extreme. It also makes movies like The Devil Rides Out seem sillier.
The Devil Rides Out: C+
Satanis: The Devil's Mass: B