In the UK: BBC4, October 31st, 10pm
As everyone knows, October 31st is the pagan festival “Dennis Wheatley Night”. It's a time of the year when occultists of all varieties traditionally get together to wonder why Wheatley, whose books were once as popular as Agatha Christie's, was such a right-wing Nazi loon*.
This year, BBC4 chose to celebrate Dennis Wheatley Night with a dramatisation of one of his stories, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, and a documentary about his life that had a group of experts wondering why he was such a right-wing Nazi loon.
The Haunting of Toby Jugg is a spookyish tale of an airman who's crippled during a raid over wartime Germany and is sent to his guardian's country house to convalesce. There he comes to the distinct impression that someone's conducting Black Masses to summon the devil, as all manner of beasties come to visit him during the night. Fortunately, being of the elite ruling class and therefore utterly heroic and a superior being compared to us gutter-trash, he triumphs over the evil Soviet Satan-lovers behind it all, albeit with a handy box of “Deus Ex Machina” bird seed from Acme industries.
The Haunted Airman, though, was very much an adaptation of The Haunting of Toby Jugg - bye, bye Soviet villains, hello Julian Sands and a possible “it was all in the mind” ending that Wheatley would have shuddered at. You can understand why they did it, because the original ending was
But all the same, you expect a certain degree of faithfulness.
Directorially, it was all over the shop, too. There's never really been a standard style set for adaptations of Wheatley's books. After a few intermittent tries in the 40s and 60s, it was left to Hammer Films to resurrect them in the 70s. While The Devil Rides Out was very much a Hammer movie in all its trappings, To The Devil A Daughter was very much absolute bollocks. So the writer/director of The Haunted Airman, Chris Durlacher, had to search far and wide for some inspiration.
Of course, there comes a certain time of year when a young director's thoughts turn to ripping off Stanley Kubrick. With the story's gift of a spooky house and a man in a wheelchair, it wasn't long before The Shining was being mined for all its worth. Unfortunately, with BBC4 budgets extending only about as far as a jar full of stunt spiders, a steadicam was out of the question. So, Durlacher appears to have been forced to undergo the directorial equivalent of gurning in order to get a reaction from the audience: odd camera angles, men cackling mysteriously and for interminable periods of time, echoey voices, cobwebs that looked like they'd been sprayed on with a can and then populated with the contents of a joke store's plastic spider collection - they were all there. It was like a “50 greatest horror direction techniques” clips show stuck together and then re-enacted by film school students, still half-drunk on Woodpecker from their Tarantino retrospective the night before.
That's not to say it wasn't frightening: it definitely had its moments, particularly if you dislike our eight-legged arachnid friends. And Robert Pattinson as Toby Jugg did give a great performance. But the story alternated between these few moments of actual fright and inadvertently comedic directorial mannerisms.
Maybe BBC4 should stick to what it knows best (and can afford): documentaries that involve people stuck round a table, talking. Dennis Wheatley: A Letter to Posterity was actually a very fine piece of work. No real flash, just straight narration, clips from the archives and Wheatley's own words used to illustrate his life. In particular, a letter to future generations uncovered in one of his garden urns was used to illustrate the inner workings of the man's mind. A call to arms, the letter anticipated a society in the thrall of socialism and urged its readers to overthrow those who would believe that all men are created equal.
Interspersed with that was a group of people who actually knew what they were talking about: the publisher who's reissuing his stories, his biographer, one of his best friends, an occultist and so on. They discussed Wheatley's work, his life, his motivations and it was all very fine indeed. Their conclusion: he was a right-wing Nazi loon. Quelle surprise. But it was enjoyable and educational. All good things, I hope you agree. Well done BBC4 on that one. Not so well done for the Airman thing.
Thus, Dennis Wheatley night was over for another year. What did you do to celebrate?
Incidentally, what it is about Julian Sands and spiders?
*Footnote for pedants: That's not tautology - the Nazis were also socialists. Wheatley really hated socialists and wanted them assassinated.