Written by: Richard Matheson, Dennis Wheatley (novel)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray and Nike Arrighi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The Angel of Death was summoned. He cannot return empty-handed."
Hammer’s foray into out-and-out Satanism was delayed for a few years; they’d had their sights on adapting Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out back in the early 60s, but they sat on it in the hopes of quelling possible censorship of its more demonic elements. Finally pushed into production in 1967 based on a script by Richard Matheson, and the result is one of the studio’s more uniformly spiritual films, one that dispenses with both the moral ambiguity and alluring seductiveness of their Frankenstein and Dracula franchises that teetered on making anti-heroes of its seedier characters. Not so here, as the prevailing theme seems to be “onward Christian soldiers,” led by a stern-faced Christopher Lee who is out to rid the world of evil instead of spreading it for once.
It begins with an intervention of sorts, as stately professor Duc de Richelieu (Lee) meets up with old chum Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene), and both head out to crash a party being hosted by mutual friend Simon (Patrick Mower). That they haven’t been invited by such a long-time acquaintance seems odd, but it soon becomes clear that Simon is in league with occultists. As de Richelieu is an authority on the subject, he deduces that Simon and another disciple (Nike Arrighi) have yet to be formally inducted, so they set out to prevent their unholy baptism at the hands of the enigmatic Mocata (Charles Gray)
The Devil Rides Out is a swift, crusading effort that brims with an obvious distrust of the occult, so much so that it’s almost humorous to think that Brit censors would have ever objected to its content. It hits the ground running, dropping us right into 1930s Britain, quickly introducing us to the principals, and it almost feels like we’ve missed out on some event, as both Lee and Greene act with such urgency that you’d swear they were out to save their friend from certain death. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that they actually do believe this, at least in a manner of speaking, with their fear of the occult being fuelled by an evangelical paranoia.
We have no trouble siding with them, however, mostly due to Lee’s staunch assuredness; the appeal here is in seeing Lee taking on the hero role for once--something he did more often than you might expect, but it’s still always a little odd to see it nonetheless. He moves with the same directness that he brought to the role of Dracula, particularly in the early scene that sees him bombing from room to room, uncovering pentagrams and other ritualistic paraphernalia. His authority is without question, and one is almost surprised that he can’t simply talk Simon out of the dark side, just as you weren’t ever all that surprised when a buxom virgin fell under his Dracula charms. In this film, the seducer is veteran Charles Gray, whose silver tongued prowess is matched only by his hypnotic overtures--he’s a very creepy, appropriately devilish sort, even when adorned in ridiculous purple cultist garb.
It’s his predatory nature that’s most unsavory--he’s obviously preying on the virginal Tanith, who actually works as his conduit for evil, but he also targets the young daughter of yet another mutual friend in the story that ends up housing Lee and company in their battle against Mocata. Save for a couple of excellent ritual sequences (overflowing with goat heads and implied bloodletting), much of the film is situated in this manor, which Mocata pays a visit himself before sending his ghastly legions in a special effects sequence that reveals the film’s age a bit (Lee has often said this was one of his favorite films, but that he wouldn’t mind seeing it updated with modern effects).
Lee is surrounded b y familiar Hammer personnel on all sides, with the crew being headed by Terence Fisher, one of horror’s more understated auteurs, perhaps because he so often adapted material. Another dreamy Technicolor affair, The Devil Rides Out is a visual feast whose garish palette underlies the general sprightliness of the film itself; though it’s draped in devilry, it’s driven by a more blazing faith. This is good vs. evil writ large, and it’s played rather broadly, with this ultimately being the type of film that ends with Lee’s assurance that we should be thankful for the Lord and his powers. There’s nothing particularly dogmatic about it--it’s just simply old-fashioned sentiment that probably felt like an affirmative reaction to the societal horrors of the 60s.
As far as one-off Hammer efforts go, The Devil Rides Out is one of their best, highlighted by a crackling script, eye-catching visuals, and one of Lee’s best performances. I have a feeling that this is the film that once inspired John Carpenter to offer Lee the role of Dr. Loomis, as you could easily see him transposing his subtle, measured hysteria here and applying it to Michael Myers. Hammer recently announced that they’re restoring a lot of their catalog for HD release, and I have to think this one will be a high priority, which would be good news for Region 1 fans since its lone DVD release is nearly 12 years old and could use an upgrade. Anchor Bay did a fine job with it, giving it an appropriately grainy anamorphic transfer and a solid mono soundtrack. The main feature is supplemented by an audio commentary with Lee and Sarah Lawson, an exclusive “World of Hammer” episode, plus a couple of theatrical trailers. This disc was repackaged as part of a double feature with Rasputin The Mad Monk, which will give you the flip side opportunity to see Lee be particularly fiendish. British horror would reach a peak when it tackled this occult material in the 70s, and The Devil Rides Out is the loosening of those floodgates. Buy it!
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