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.
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