It certainly took the movies awhile to warm up to the idea of The Behooved One stepping across our screens. Looking to America, Hammer Films waited until Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967) was published (and purchased for filming) before going forth with their first satanic foray on film, The Devil Rides Out (1968). Based on Dennis Wheatley’s novel of the same name from 1934, it was Hammer’s chance to move away from Gothic horror and prove that they could compete in an ever changing market. But The Devil Rides Out did more than that – it provided Hammer with one of their very finest films, a chilling thrillride that still delivers the devil drenched goods.
Released in the U.K. in July of ’68 by Warner – Pathe (a month after Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) and December of the same year by Twentieth Century Fox in the U.S., the film was commercially successful and, more importantly for Hammer, received very good notices. It showed that they could do contemporary features and not just period pieces. Now, contemporary in this case was the late 1920’s, but castles were replaced with mansions and horse drawn carriages with automobiles, at least bringing them into the 20th century. Getting with the times, Hammer also enlisted the services of novelist turned screenwriter Richard Matheson (The Last Man on Earth), ensuring a screenplay that would play with modern audiences. And boy does it – The Devil Rides Out may not be as urbane and hip as Rosemary, but it showed that Hammer could put away the pitchforks and torches while still providing the terror they were so well known for.
Let’s dive into the story, shall we? Nicholas, Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee, playing the hero and loving it) picks up his friend Rex (Leon Greene – Flash Gordon) from an airport in England, with the intention of having a reunion with a third friend Simon (Patrick Mower – Carry On England). However, Rex is told by Nicholas that Simon has not been heard from in months, and they speed off to his mansion (everyone is rich here) to track him down. Simon is alive and well, and is shocked to see his friends as he is hosting a ‘meeting’ for a club to which he belongs (NOT the Knights of Columbus). Nicholas presumes something is amiss, which is confirmed when he peruses Simon’s observatory and finds many signs of satanic activity (live fowl in a basket is a pretty good omen). It turns out Simon is to be ‘rebaptized’ into a satanic cult by Mocata (Charles Gray – Diamonds Are Forever), their suave and sinister leader.
The Devil Rides Out, which was released as The Devils’ Bride (ugh) stateside, still works today due to Hammer’s resilience and pedigree harmonizing on a timely project. With horror tackling more realistic, gritty topics (a groundswell started by Psycho and others of its ilk), filmmakers looked for new ways to terrify audiences. Satanic cults and churches blossomed in the 60’s, and this proved to be new grist for the old mill. If you want to portray good versus evil, why not go right to the source and take on Ol’ Scratch himself? Sensing the sea change, Hammer commissioned the novel, waited a few years, and then moved forward with production. They still hedged their bets a bit though. Unlike Rosemary, which comes across as cynical and jaded toward Christianity, Devil insinuates, okay insists, that God is responsible for the outcome of the story. So unlike most satanic films of the following decade, Hammer still wants you to believe everything will be alright in the end.
To this end, Matheson’s screenplay doesn’t leave you a breath to think about it until it’s over. The film hits the ground running and barely lets up for 96 minutes. Car chases, fist fights, a pretty chaste implication of an orgy (we’ll have it with our tea, thank you) and other assorted moments whiz by faster than most action films of today. Matheson also possesses an uncanny knack for making exposition sound interesting – it’s practically all Lee spouts, and yet it doesn’t drag the film, but rather adds to the atmosphere provided by the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography of Arthur Grant (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), and the razor sharp editing of Spencer Reeve (Frankenstein Created Woman). Of course, the leader of the Hammer team is director Terence Fisher, whose Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula a decade earlier put Hammer deservedly on the horror map. He is clearly having a lot of fun here, with a chance to get away from bodices and candle filled hallways, and he makes the most of the opportunity. Of course, one of his great strengths was getting appropriate performances from his casts, this being no exception.
I say appropriate, as Fisher had a talent for modulating according to the material – where one of his Dracula films would lean towards the melodramatic, here he reels in the cast ever so slightly to fit the times and the material. The whole cast is fine, but the two main roles belong to Lee and Gray, light against dark. Gray, with his magnificent, piercing silver eyes and disquieting smile, relishes the role of Mocata, imprinting with a whisper the dread of the unknown, even in what amounts to a not too considerable screen time. The biggest delight, and the film’s true selling point, however, is Christopher Lee. Rarely given the role of the hero, Lee digs in and owns the picture. Sporting a magnificent Van Dyke, with finely tailored suits and slicked back hair, he commands the screen with a noble heroism that is in stark contrast to his hideous, pathetic turn as Frankenstein’s monster a decade prior. He displays athleticism, and a calm litheness that shows maybe instead of fighting James Bond, he could have portrayed him. It really is a magnificent turn, and one of Lee’s personal favorite roles.
Regardless of some dated effects, The Devil Rides Out still stands as one of Hammer’s finest films, a firm reminder that old dogs can learn new tricks, and a glorious tribute to Lee - even the most beloved villains, from time to time, deserve a chance to shine in the light of the virtuous.
The Devil Rides Out is available on DVD on various Anchor Bay Hammer Collections Region 1, and Blu-ray for Region 2.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: FADE TO BLACK