A splendid example of Hammer Films operating at the height of their powers, The Devil Rides Out - released as The Devil's Bride in the U.S. to avoid being confused for a western - is pure class all the way. Elegantly directed by Terence Fisher, it features a fine script by ace horror scribe Richard Matheson (based on the somewhat forgotten but once famous novel by Dennis Wheatley), and stars one of the horror genre's biggest stars, Christopher Lee, in a role he has long claimed as a personal favorite. The Devil Rides Out wasn't a big hit at the box office and isn't nearly as well known as it should be, but it regularly appears near the top of most fan polls of Hammer's best movies. It's certainly an unusual sort of film compared to the studio's typical Gothic horror output, set as it is in the late 1920s world of art deco and English country estates, and revolving around black magic amidst a group of decadent Satanists. It's also unusual for giving the imposing Lee, so often typecast as villains (to memorable effect, it must be said), a chance to doff his Dracula cape and fangs and fight on the side of the angels for a change.
The films opens with a bang and scarcely pauses for breath as it hurtles headlong through its story. Once every year, veterans of the Great War and ex-members of the Lafayette Escadrille, Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau (Lee) and Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene) meet up with Simon (Patrick Mower), the son of their dead wartime friend, for a celebratory dinner. No sooner has Rex landed his biplane upon the green swards of southern England and joined de Richleau in his expensive roadster than he finds out that this time, Simon has cancelled their heretofore unbreakable tradition for mysterious reasons. De Richleau and Rex decide to pay an impromptu call on Simon at the country estate he's recently had built for him outside London. Upon their arrival, the pair discover that an odd sort of party appears to be in progress. Simon gives them a halfheartedly warm welcome but is obviously nervous about their presence, and it doesn't take long for the Duc to suss out what's really going on - Simon's got himself mixed up with a bunch of Satan worshippers, led by the suavely sinister Mocata (Charles Gray). For his part, the stalwart but skeptical Rex finds himself entranced by another party guest, an otherworldly Continental beauty known as Tanith (Nike Arrighi).
The Duc is outraged to find his young friend enmeshed in such dangerous activities, and when his entreaties to abandon these dark pursuits fall on deaf ears, swiftly knocks Simon unconscious, and he and Rex whisk him away from Mocata's clutches. Mocata doesn't take too kindly to de Richleau's interference - Simon and Tanith, Mocata's medium, are both crucial cogs in his diabolical plans and he's not about to let them out of his web. Thus begins a knock-down, drag-out struggle between the forces of good and evil. Eventually the battle moves to the home of de Richleau's niece, Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson), her husband, Richard (Paul Eddington) and their daughter, Peggy (Rosalyn Landor), where the Duc must marshal all his arcane occult knowledge to defend his friends against Mocata's full-out, supernatural assault...
To reveal much more of the plot would be a shame; it's not that the film features any great twists, but rather that the actual incidents of the simple yet effective story are best enjoyed as they unfold, for maximum suspense and thrills. Terence Fisher was Hammer's go-to director for stately, classical horror and he wrings all he can out of the modest budget. The Devil Rides Out looks sleek and sumptuous, and the production gets maximum value out of the strong cast, rich period decor of the sets, evocative locations (of several historic Home Counties manors) and a virtual fleet of gorgeous, classic cars. Matheson's script plays things straight up and serious, and follows the general outlines of Wheatley's novel fairly closely, retaining much of its Boys' Own Adventure appeal. The film is wonderfully edited and paced, and the score (written by James Bernard and supervised by Phillip Martell) is one of the best to grace a Hammer production, by turns eerie and pulse-pounding.
It was Christopher Lee, himself an avid collector of works on the occult and a fan and friend of Wheatley's, who spurred Hammer on to make a film based on his works. According to Lee's autobiography, the powers that be at Hammer were - despite the often bright red blood and prodigious cleavage on display in their movies - quite conservative, and worried about audiences' reaction to an overly realistic depiction of a Black Mass. (1) They were eventually persuaded by Lee's insistence on close attention to the details of occult ritual, and an overt tone of Christian piety espoused by the Duc de Richleau throughout, especially at the film's climax. Matheson's script also wisely tones down the metaphysical mumbo jumbo - and outright eliminates the jingoism, anti-Semitism and digressive anti-Communist rants - that pepper the source novel and Wheatley's other works. Wheatley was a very successful and popular author in his day, but his books have fallen out of fashion (and print) in recent years. If one can get over his editorial asides and personal biases, Wheatley's best novels still make for good, page-turning escapist reading. Fortunately, Bloomsbury has just this month reissued The Devil Rides Out, as well as To the Devil - A Daughter and Forbidden Territory, in nice paperback editions, for those who might be interested in giving him a try.
In any case, Lee remains very proud of this film version, and his role as the Duc de Richleau. Perhaps a bit too young for the part as depicted in the novel (he seems to have added a light sheen of gray to his hair to counteract this), Lee is in all other respects spot-on in his characterization. He's all business here, barking orders and uttering ominous imprecations, bringing every ounce of his imperious authority, regal bearing and commanding presence to the film. In every respect, this is the most iconic "hero" role of his career, and he makes the most of a golden opportunity.
Leon Greene, who plays Rex, was French, and apparently his accent didn't pass muster with the brass at Hammer, as his voice is dubbed by the very butch sounding Patrick Allen (who appeared onscreen the year before in Night of the Big Heat, a.k.a. Island of the Burning Damned, with both Lee and Peter Cushing). One can't help feeling a bit sorry for Greene, who spoke perfectly fine English in a number of British film and television productions, and who must have been surprised and dismayed to hear another man's voice issuing from his lips when he saw the film upon release. (Hammer did this sort of thing upon a number of occasions, such as unnecessarily dubbing over Caroline Munro in Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter.) Nevertheless, the dubbing comes off quite seamlessly and Greene cuts a believably rugged, dashing figure, and is just the right kind of salt-of-the-earth, two-fisted ally that the cool, collected Duc de Richleau needs in his corner when death is (literally) nipping at their heels.
The Devil Rides Out also stands apart in its supporting cast, eschewing the regular Hammer stock company (Michael Ripper is conspicuous by his absence) for some welcome fresh blood. One such addition is Charles Gray, perhaps best known either for his appearance as Blofled in the shambolic 007 entry, Diamonds Are Forever, or (better still) to fans of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series, as Holmes' wily brother Mycroft. Gray is sublime here, practically slime personified as the oily Mocata, and carries enough thespic weight and menace to lock horns with Lee in their few scenes together. Gray is at his smug, silky best in the scene where he inveigles himself into the Eaton's home, using his superhuman will and malevolent mental powers to hypnotize Marie and control the minds of the sleeping Tanith and Simon in an attempt to kill their guardians, Rex and Richard. Only Peggy's timely interruption halts the spell, and a shaken Marie cries "Get out of this house!" Unfazed, Mocata heads for the door, pausing only to mutter a warning:
"I shall not be back...but something will."
Also memorable are Paul Eddington as Richard, doing a more sober dry-run of the befuddled yet game, "I say, wot?" British upper crust type that would lead him to great sitcom acclaim on TV's The Good Life and Yes, Minister. Nike Arrighi falters a bit with her thick French accent but does a nice job overall keeping Tanith a mysterious, conflicted character, and her unique, wide-eyed beauty seems well-suited to the 1920s setting. Patrick Mower is saddled with a pretty weak-willed character in Simon but has a great, angular and expressive face and does well with what he's been given, clearly depicting anguish and inner turmoil.
All told, The Devil Rides Out is a crackerjack supernatural thriller, with plenty of action, fisticuffs, car chases, and assorted other derring-do, a soupcon of romance, oodles of period atmosphere, and contains a few moments that still come off pretty creepy today, including a rather tame but still disturbing midnight, woodland Bacchanal and some weird demonic manifestations. If it has a flaw, it's that some of the special effects in the finale let it down ever so slightly. As a fan of older movies, I'm used to old-school effects techniques and am pretty forgiving, but there's really no need to be in this case: by the standards of its time and budget, the F/X on display here are not bad at all (in fact, I think the Goat of Mendes is one of the better depictions of the devil on screen up to that time). Some disagree, however, to the extent that Studio Canal have released a controversial Blu-Ray edition in the U.K., complete with redone CGI effects. I have yet to see this version, but judging from the comments I've read online, the reception of these new effects seems to be decidedly mixed, to say the least...particularly as there is no option to view the original version on the release.
I say, give me the original recipe every time. The Devil Rides Out is perhaps unlikely to be particularly scary for most modern viewers, but it remains a fast-paced, exciting and stylish thriller, as well as a fascinating oddity in Hammer's horror catalog. Its lackluster financial returns sadly put the kibosh on planned sequels featuring the Duc de Richleau and company, but the studio did try their hand at two other Wheatley adaptations, the fun and completely bonkers The Lost Continent and (as one of the last gasps of the studio in the 70s) To the Devil, a Daughter - again with Lee, back to being a baddie this time. Lee has stated more than once that he would have loved to take another crack at the Duc de Richleau character. That dream never came to fruition, but he can rest content in the fact that he, and the filmmakers, got it right the first time.
This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Click here to view the complete blogathon schedule.
Source Note: (1) Tall, Dark and Gruesome by Christopher Lee, published by Midnight Marquee Press, 1999.
DVD Note: Even though the (now out of print) Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD hails from the early days of the format (2000), the transfer is very nice, and looks quite good on my large HDTV. The aforementioned British Studio Canal Blu-Ray also comes with with an accompanying DVD version, if one doesn't mind the artistic tampering.
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