(1968) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by Richard Matheson; Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley; Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Niké Arrighi, Leon Greene and Patrick Mower; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2).
“…all these names that came out, Adelaide, Osiris and various others, are all part and parcel of historical devil worship. There’s no fake. These were really the phrases that were used.” – Christopher Lee
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was originally posted in July 2015.
The times were changing for Hammer in the late 1960s, and the film industry in general, but The Devil Rides Out had more in common with the movies that preceded it, rather than the movies that followed. While not bereft of lurid content, or Hammer’s emphasis on blood, the story takes a more leisurely pace, and maintains a veneer of decorum that would be eschewed with later productions such as The Vampire Lovers or To The Devil a Daughter (also based on a Wheatley novel). That’s not to say that everything’s all prim and proper in this Hammer production, but the film represents an era in filmmaking that was drawing to an end.
Christopher Lee* was a big fan of author Dennis Wheatley and his occult novels (including The Devil Rides Out), and convinced skeptical Hammer producer Anthony Hinds to purchase the film rights. After the first script was deemed “far too English” (The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes), Richard Matheson was hired to write a new screenplay. Although The Devil Rides Out was a moderate hit in its native England, it failed to raise a stir in the United States. Because the American distributors were concerned the film would somehow be misconstrued as a western, the original title was discarded in favor of The Devil’s Bride.
* In the DVD commentary, Lee frequently mentions a new Hammer version of the film, which he was in talks to appear in. Considering the track record of the new Hammer, perhaps it’s a good thing this remake never happened.
It’s refreshing to see Lee playing a good guy for once. He does a terrific job as the virtuous Duc de Richleau, fighting the encroaching forces of darkness* with a fanatical zeal. When de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) pay a visit to their mutual friend Simon (Patrick Mower) they find their reception is less than welcoming. While Simon does everything he can to shoo them out, de Richleau discovers his friend is in cahoots with an unseemly bunch, and that more than 13 is definitely a crowd for a satanic ceremony (Pro tip: when there’s chickens in the closet, you know someone’s up to no good). In comparison to Lee’s dynamic performance, his co-stars Greene and Mower are rather bland, but their characters exist mainly to move the plot along.
* Fun fact: Lee conducted extensive research in matters of the occult, which provided another level of credibility to his performance.
Charles Gray fares much better as the chief bad guy, Mocata,* a formidable opponent for de Richleau. Mocata is a perfect example of an understated villain, at once refined and unspeakably malevolent. In one scene, he conveys menace as he casually warns de Richleau’s niece, “I shall not be back, but something will.” He doesn’t have to shout to get his message across; his mesmerizing stare is sufficient to make people bow to his every whim. In another memorable scene, Mocata summons an incarnation of Satan, the Goat of Mendes (played by Lee’s long-time stunt double, Eddie Powell). Niké Arrighi is also excellent in her supporting, but essential role as Tanith, born to be Mocata’s pawn. Arrighi conveys an enigmatic blend of sadness and vulnerability. Conflicted by her allegiance to Mocata and her attraction to Rex, there’s a sense of fatalism in everything that she does.
* Another fun fact: It’s hard to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role of Mocata, but Gray wasn’t Hammer’s first choice. Gert Fröbe (Goldfinger) was initially considered due to his portly physique, which more closely matched Wheatley’s description of the character.
Despite the film’s solid reputation among Hammer enthusiasts worldwide, The Devil Rides Out is relatively obscure in the U.S., where the DVD has been out of print for more than a decade. It’s classic Hammer in every sense of the way, with its steadfast theme of good versus evil, superior production values and a story that takes its time to unfold. There has been some controversy over the latest version of the film, available on Region B Blu-ray, due to some computer enhancements to the effects. To the credit of the restoration team, pains were taken to keep things in the spirit of the period when the film was released. While it’s nice to see these modern flourishes, used judiciously, they’re unnecessary for my enjoyment. Polished effects were never Hammer’s strong suit, and accepting the imperfections just added to the charm. Modern filmmakers could learn from the restraints of Hammer in their heyday, with an imaginary line in the sand, delineating where special effects end and imagination begins. In any case, The Devil Rides Out deserves its place in Hammer history as a solid piece of entertainment.