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 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...
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.
"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.