Devil Rides Out, The (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The beauty of woman . . . the demon of darkness . . . the unholy union of “The Devil’s Bride”

The Duc Du Richleau and Rex Van Ryn arrive at the house of their friend Simon Aron for a long-awaited reunion. However Simon has forgotten about them and is instead holding a mysterious party for an astronomical society. Richleau then discovers that the society is a really a coven of Satanists led by the charismatic Mocata and the two men bundle Simon away to safety. That is the least of their troubles though as Mocata won’t let Simon go that easily and uses all of his black magic powers to claim Simon’s soul. Mocata had summoned the Angel of Death and it will not return to Hell empty-handed.

 

Having firmly established themselves as Gothic horror specialists in the 50s and 60s with their array of Frankenstein and Dracula films, Hammer‘s fortunes began to wane a little in the late 60s. There were only so many times that audiences could watch Frankenstein fail again or see Dracula staked before it got repetitive. So the studio decided to dabble in the black arts and looked for other literature that they could bring to the screen. Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel, The Devil Rides Out, seemed like a perfect fit with its tales of black magic, ritual sacrifices and shady good versus evil dynamics which Hammer loved. In fact an adaptation of the novel had first been proposed by Hammer in 1963 but with the subject matter proving controversial (even on its eventual release) it was put on the back burner until 1967 when censorship had become a little more relaxed and this finally went into production. The studio pulled out all of the big guns – their top director Terence Fisher, composer James Bernard and the legendary Christopher Lee – to make sure that this was a hit. It has since become one of Hammer’s most celebrated films and whilst its slow pace is a product of its time, it is a film which lingers long in the mind after viewing.

The Devil Rides Out pulls out the dark, sinister undertones almost right from the beginning as both the scholarly Du Richleau and sceptical Rex go to visit Simon at his party and realise something is not right. There is a constant sense that something terrifying is lurking around waiting to be unleashed. Nowadays this would be replicated with a bombardment of special effects but this is old school horror and the power of the film lies in suggestion rather than visuals. Wheatley knew his occult down to very fine detail and every shred of knowledge is crammed into the screen in some form either by visuals in the form of the lavish ceremonial sets or through dialogue (much of which is spoken by Christopher Lee which instantly makes it sound credible – more on him later though) in which we get to know things like the exact amount of people that need to be present at one of these ceremonies and so forth. If you don’t know anything about the occult, chances are you’ll have picked a few things up afterwards.

The piece-de-resistance of the film is the scene in which Du Richleau, Marie, Reggie and Simon stay inside a protective circle chalk-drawn out on the floor and must survive the night as Mocata sends all manner of black magic forces against them including the Angel of Death and a giant tarantula. It sounds a lot more epic than it turns out and the quality of the special effects varies between enemies (they do age the film considerably) but the scene is more about atmosphere and tension and that it manages to nail.

Rather more alarmingly is the scene in the woods for the first attempt to baptise Simon into the cult. As the cultists chant and sacrifice, a goat-headed figure appears representing the Devil himself. Even though it is blatantly a guy in a mask, the entire scene is rather unsettling for its intent than any outright shock. The less said about an early scene in which Du Richleau and Rex are greeted by the sight of a demon arising from a hidden pentagram (simply a cross-eyed black guy – someone call the politically correct brigade!) the better. I guess what I like about the film is that it believes in itself. Rex is asked to buy into the existence of black magic at the start of the film by Du Richleau and in effect he’s asking the audience to buy into it as well. The scene with the Devil in the woods is presented almost as matter-of-fact with hardly any focus on the goat-headed apparition perched on a rock watching the ritual. This makes it all the more terrifying.

Whilst the film plods along when it isn’t conducting black magic rituals and the less-than-subtle Christian messages get a little too sickening towards the end, it is the performances which make this a true Hammer classic. Christopher Lee has often stated that out of all of the films that he’s starred in, this was his favourite and it’s easy to see why from his viewpoint: he gets to star as the good guy for a change! If see you ‘starring Christopher Lee’ in a title, you assume that he’s the bad guy such as his typecasting over the years has dictated. But whilst his sinister moustache and beard lends itself to images of Satanic priests, Lee’s usual pomp, grandeur, intensity and directness make for an interesting choice of hero. It’s one of Lee’s best performances, certainly more energetic and committed to the script than I can recall from other films (and I’ve seen a lot of Lee’s films).

Charles Gray, more famous for his appearance as Blofeld in James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever, stars opposite him as Mocata and though Gray’s more feminine persona and foppish voice does detract slightly from the character, his smarm and arrogance slices through the screen and more than adequately gives him a creepy edge. His quote “I will not be back. But something will, tonight” is delivered with devilish relish as he warns Marie of the night they’re about to face and smirks at the thought of their suffering. Mocata and Du Richleau are set up as binary opposites to each other, much like Dracula and Van Helsing were in the Dracula films or even Professor X and Magneto in the X-Men films (to use a more recent example). With equal powers and equal knowledge of the other, the tense stand-offs between the two smacks of intellectuals playing chess with human pawns. Its sterling work and credit must also go to writer Richard Matheson for crafting such enthralling characters. The rest of the cast don’t make nearly as much of an impression but when you’re in the shadows of Lee and Gray on this form, there’s no shame in that.

 

The Devil Rides Out is a stand-out film in Hammer’s massive film library. Without Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster in the film, the studio showed that they could deliver classic horror films and this is certainly one of their best efforts despite it not doing all that well when it was released. It has since found much respect and with a towering, near career-best performance from Christopher Lee at its core, The Devil Rides Out is classic horror at its most daring.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

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One single comment

  1. Jeff says:

    They actually played this movie in the auditorium of my old elemtary school! It scared us kids to death. I love this movie.

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