Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Country: UK

The Devil's Bride

Of the three Dennis Wheatley properties optioned by Hammer The Devil Rides Out is by some margin the most enjoyable. It has steadily risen to a position of prominence within the annals of British horror, and can now be viewed as an exemplar of the gothic horror form. The other two Wheatley films The Lost Continent (1968) and To the Devil - A Daughter (1976) are interesting failures. The former is unable to escape the abysmal production values and incompetent direction to realise the promise of the concept, and the latter suffers from its obvious mimicry of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), and an incredibly uninterested lead performance from Richard Widmark. By contrast The Devil Rides Out possesses sumptuous production values, truly inspired direction from Terence Fisher, and dedicated displays from the principal players. It appeared at a precipitous moment in the development of the horror genre. A brief window of opportunity for Hammer to produce one last great gothic horror production before the mode became increasingly anachronistic and irrelevant. The film fed into a sub-set of movies dealing with the themes of occultism, witchcraft and satanic worship. In contrast to the US, British horror had a long tradition of engaging with these themes dating back to Night of the Demon (1957), with other examples such as Night of the Eagle (1962), Witchcraft (1964) and Hammer’s The Witches (1966) offering novel approaches. Tigon would take on the mantle and push boundaries even further with Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). As excellent as all these films were, it is The Devil Rides Out that still leads the way.

The film signals its intent with a wonderfully stylish credits sequence that uses ornate gothic fonts and a series of colourful symbols and images from the history of Satanic necromancy. This is supported by one of James Bernard’s most foreboding and threatening musical compositions. Christopher Lee who sports a neat little goatee is perfectly cast as the authoritative aristocrat the Duc de Richleau. Lee glowers with a dark intensity throughout, effortlessly brings gravitas and dignity to this sartorial character, and impresses upon the audience the seriousness of meddling with the black forces of Satanism. He is also a haughty know it all, and utterly humourless, qualities I’m sure Mr. Lee was quite comfortable with. Lee is clearly relishing the opportunity to play a sympathetic role and the conviction he brings helps to give the audience a belief in the dark devilry that is at work. The simplistic nature of the narrative, which merely pits good against evil in a time honoured struggle is brought vividly to life by a director well tuned to these Manichean themes. Fisher’s romanticism is quite muted here, and instead he is able to show off his skill at crafting exciting action set pieces. An excellent car chase along a constricted country road is a highlight, given added style by the Victorian roadsters driven by Rex (Leon Greene) and Tannith (Nike Arrighi). A satanic orgy in the grounds of a plush estate shows how far such images had come since the laughable efforts two years before in The Witches. The finale of which sees the appearance of the Goat of Mendes; the Devil himself!

The centrepiece however is the marvellous and much imitated sequence where the forces of good are encamped within a chalk circle. The malevolent forces of Mocata (Charles Gray) soon get to work, and we are privy to a giant spider, some petulant in fighting and an appearance from the Angel of Death. Gray’s performance as the dandyish Satanist is divisive, but he brings a chilling sense of style to the role. Of particular note is a sequence in which he attempts to hypnotise Marie (Sarah Lawson). The close up shots of Mocata’s eyes are superbly intercut with scenes of his would be disciples upstairs succumbing to his mental control. This is a beautifully composed sequence which increases tension with each expertly timed cut that is made. Unfortunately though this is the only opportunity we get to see Mocata in his element, other than this his appearances are sporadic and uneventful. However he does get to deliver the best line in the film when he warns Marie “I shall not be back…but something will”. Such magnificent lines are symptomatic of a wonderfully lyrical and literate screenplay by Richard Matheson. In addition to a plethora of dialogue triumphs, the film is littered with unexpected plot developments, and a sense of omnipotent forces free to manipulate space and time.

Tension is also increased by de Richleau regularly leaving the narrative. This is normally to consult rare and esoteric texts at the British library, leaving the more vulnerable characters at the mercy of Mocata’s mesmeric meddling. One major weakness of the film however is that we are never given the pleasure of seeing de Richleau and Mocata clash. A strong scene between the two exploring their ideological differences would have been welcome. The film is also unable to resist the overly religious nature of the dénouement, and the screenplay in my opinion makes a mistake with the rather daft resurrection of Tannith. These are moments I’m sure sat very well with the director, but for me it just takes the edge off the film. Nevertheless one must commend the writer for whittling down Wheatley’s stodgy and bloated novel into a form that is both exciting and thrilling. In terms of performances Lee so utterly dominates that everyone else looks wooden as a post, especially the unconvincing romantic duo of Nike Arrighi and Leon Greene. The visual effects are likewise unconvincing, but this is made tolerable by Bernard Robinson’s peerless production design. The Devil Rides Out is certainly one of Hammer’s most impressive gothic pictures, and a notable addition to a body of work in British cinema dealing with the occult and witchcraft.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Does not sound like a film I would like, but great review! I love to review films as well.

  2. Cheers Matt - a little old fashioned perhaps, but If you like gothic horror films, you'll get a lot of fun out of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT.

  3. I loved this one, it reminded me most of Night of the Demon which you mentioned, and what makes it interesting is that Lee is playing a good guy for a change, but as you say, even while playing the good guy, he still has that edge to him.

    The cheesy effects in the end kind of dissapoint, but well, this was the sixties, and these movies where extremely low budget, often times they avoided the use of visual effects as much as they could, but whenever they would come into play, they would be unspectacular.

    You mentioned To the DEvil a Daughter, man, what a dissapointing film! It was just terrible, I mean, after watching it, you kind of get the feeling that yeah, this was Hammer on its very very last legs. On top of everything we are forced to see Christopher Lee's ass on that one during a ritual sequence! I didnt enjoy To the Devil a Daughter at all except for Natasja Kinski who looked sexy as ever.

  4. For me the only visual effect that fails is the giant spider, the rest work quite well and are consistent with the general style of the film. But these type of photographic effects were not Hammer's strong suit, instead they tended too excel at special makeup effects.

    There are some likeable aspects in TO THE DEVIL: A DAUGHTER - the wonderful location work, the chilling performance of Christopher Lee, the twitchy brilliance of Denholm Elliot, and as you mentioned the delightful Nastassya Kinski in a nun's outfit no less. But the weak points outweigh the strong - Widmark is pathetic, the ending is a total letdown.

  5. Excellent write up, Shaun! I do enjoy this movie much better now than I did as a kid catching it on television. Maybe it's the participation of both Lee and Gray, but this one always played as something of a supernatural spy picture to me more than a straight horror movie. Wasn't there a remake planned not too long ago?

  6. A supernatural spy picture...I like that description. Yes I think it is one of a clutch of Hammer titles that are regularly banded about for the remake treatment. The other notable one being THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT. I liked this as a kid, I think it was the whole chalk circle scene that really appealed to me.

  7. thanks for sharing.


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