The Haunted Airman – From the Bargain Basement of Horror
It’s hard to credit that despite selling over 60 million books in his lifetime and gaining a reputation for being a master of the macabre only two of author Dennis Wheatley’s occult chillers ever made it onto the big screen: The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and To the Devil -A Daughter in 1975. Although he liked what Hammer did with The Devil Rides Out Wheatley hated Hammer’s treatment of another of his books, the lost world epic Uncharted Seas which was filmed as The Lost Continent (1968) and withheld further film rights from, them. Having seen The Lost Continent I can understand why it’s a complete car crash of a movie.
Wheatley passed the film rights to his occult movies on to Christopher Lee, the pair having become pals during the filming of The Devil Rides Out and in 1975 Lee, having failed to raise the cash to produce To the Devil – A Daughter for his own Charlemagne production company manged to get Hammer to cough for it. With US backed star Richard Widmark and a young Natassja Kinski joining Lee in the cast it did well at the box office. However Wheatley hated it because of changes made by both the studio and Widmark himself and withdrew permission to follow it up with The Satanist. As such To the Devil – A Daughter proved to be Hammer’s last Horror movie before the company’s recent revival.
Following the author’s death in 1977 interest in his books declined as he was judged old-fashioned, right-wing and racist, but to be fair so were many of his contemporaries and recent reappraisal has seen the occult novels, which are a cracking good read once you discount the author’s politics, back in print. As to TV and film adaptations the only one so far is the BBC’s The Haunted Airman (2006) based upon Wheatley’s 1948 novel The Haunting of Toby Jugg.
As you’d expect from the BBC The Haunted Airman looks very pretty. Set during World War II, the sets, costumes and props are all lovely and the cast are great. Twiglet boy Robert Pattinson (who looks fab in an RAF tunic, but then its just such a great uniform anyway) plays Toby Jugg a wheelchair bound bomber pilot who is sent to the sanitorium run by the creepy Dr Hal played with evident glee by Julian Sands. However writer director Chris Durlacher has taken some liberties with the source material turning it from a supernatural tale of the physical manifestations of a Satanic cult by demoting Toby’s nightmare visions to symptoms of mental illness caused by his guilt about dropping bombs on German civilians and his jealousy over Dr Hal’s relationship with his widowed Aunt Julia (Rachel Stirling). This all leads to a bit of a cop out conclusion that is all to easy to predict.
I suspect old Dennis would have hated it, personally I liked the production values, but the changes made to the story turned it into a diappointing psychological drama. I give it a 333/666
Having said that I only paid 46p for a perfect copy of The Haunted Airman on DVD from an Amazon reseller and thanks to the huge quantities of Wheatley’s books published in the 1960s and 70s (each occult title sold around 80,000 copies a year) they are easy to find in second-hand stores and charity shops at rock bottom prices.