Continuing our Hammer Horror month with a look at one of their most impressive films, adapted from the Dennis Wheatley novel.
In 1968, Hammer shot their first Dennis Wheatley films – the boys own adventure The Lost Continent, and this, their first overtly occult movie after dipping their toes into the witchcraft world a couple of years earlier with The Witches, taking advantage of the British censor’s reluctant loosening of their Christian morals. The BBFC had long treated the Satanic as a taboo subject, one to be approached with caution – in the same year that The Devil Rides Out was filmed, BBFC head John Trevelyan told Supernatural magazine that black magic posed a genuine threat to the nation, a belief that he shared with Christopher Lee curiously enough (though Lee’s concerns didn’t stop him appearing in occult movies). Public tastes were changing, though – 1968 was also the year of Rosemary’s Baby, the film that really opened the floodgates for satanic cinema in the 1970s and quaint, superstitious beliefs like Trevelyan’s would no longer be openly expressed by the censors, even if they clearly still did believe that films like The Exorcist had some sort of occult power beyond what was shown on screen.
At the end of the 1960s, Wheatley’s books – mostly written decades earlier – had begun to experience a revival in popularity that would last through the next decade, thanks in large part to raunchy covers that barely reflected the somewhat stuffy and reactionary content, as well as a wider interest in Satanism, devil worship and all things occult in the world at large. Throughout the 1970s, Wheatley’s books sat alongside countless other black magic novels, leering non-fiction books about Devil worshippers and witches (seemingly interchangeable in the eyes of sensationalist publishers and authors) and magazines about occultism, many of which sold on the promise of skyclad rituals and sexy naked witches as much as on any actual occultist content.
For all their Satanic narratives and sexy covers, Wheatley’s novels were rather staid and stuffy – he was a man who believed fervently in the class system and his heroes were always well-to-do gentlemen of independent means with a taste for the finer things in life (something he would explore in tedious detail – The Devil Rides Out spends its opening pages obsessively describing every course of a meal) while his villains were generally subversives, shifty foreigners or, worse still, Communists. The books are very much of their time and it’s hardly a surprise that they have long since fallen out of favour. But in many ways, they were perfect for Hammer. At the heart of the stories is generally a rollicking adventure and if all the fat and the tubthumping could be trimmed away, they were certainly cinematic stories. In a different time, Hammer might have made a whole series of films based on his novels (or which there are dozens, with only eleven of them black magic stories) and the fact that they began with the gloriously trashy boy’s own adventure The Lost Continent suggested that the company had plans for his work beyond horror. But The Devil Rides Out was perhaps made a few years too late – by the time it was released, stories about stuffy English aristocrats battling the forces of evil were starting to feel a bit old hat. The film would be the last of the Wheatley adaptations until To The Devil – A Daughter in 1976, which tossed out most of Wheatley’s story and modernised the action for a post-Exorcist audience, so infuriating the author that he refused to sanction any further films by Hammer – not that there was any chance of that anyway.
Christopher Lee plays the Duc de Richelieu, a wealthy aristocrat and expert in occult matters, who finds that his young protégé Simon (Patrick Mower) has become involved in a Satanic cult led by the sinister Mocata (Charles Gray). Along with his friend Rex (Leon Greene), he endeavours to rescue Simon and fellow initiate Tanith (Nike Arrighi), but Mocata is not about to let them go that easily.
Sympathetically adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson (who sticks closely to Wheatley’s original story but tightens up both the action and the cumbersome dialogue considerably), The Devil Rides Out is a genuine Hammer classic – and perhaps the last of their traditional horror films before the changing times began to take the company in new directions. Terence Fisher directs in his usual efficient, unflashy style, and he keeps the action thundering along – this is a film that barely stops for air, full of car chases, fights and spectacular horror scenes that are heightened by a James Bernard score that is histrionic even by his standards. Although a period piece, at times the film is almost Bondian in pacing and action and it feels very much as though everyone is firing on all cylinders.
Lee – a fan and friend of Wheatley in real life – gives one of his most enthusiastic performances as the Duc, who for reasons that the film never bothers explaining is clearly very familiar with the world of black magic but is firmly on the side of the angels. It was rare to see Lee as the hero in a horror film, but he’s excellent in the role bringing a gravitas and intensity to the role that absolutely centres the film. Gray too is hugely impressive as the insidiously smooth Mocata, oozing an oily charm yet seeming convincingly dangerous. The rest of the cast is perhaps less impressive – Paul Eddington, in a supporting role, is convincingly baffled as an initially sceptical family friend, but Greene seems woodenly stoic – his performance not helped by the fact he is clearly dubbed by an instantly recognisable Patrick Allen. His performance isn’t helped by the fact that Rex is one of the most spectacularly useless heroes you’ll ever find in a horror film. Tell him not to look into the eyes of an apparition and he’ll immediately stare at it; tell him to stay calm and he’ll blunder in, fists flying, or break a trance by shouting just as the vital information was about to be revealed. He really is a buffoon and it is to the film’s credit that we don’t really notice that on first viewing.
One of the most impressive sequences in The Devil Rides Out – not quite the climax, but near enough – has the heroes inside a magic circle as Mocata’s Satanic forces are sent to attack them. It’s a powerful, dramatic, sometimes hysterically intense scene that ranks amongst the best of Hammer’s dramatic set pieces, and renders the actual finale of the film a bit of an anti-climax. It’s also long been one of the most problematic moments of the film thanks to some special effects that were pitiful even at the time. Both the giant tarantula and the Angel of Death that Mocata send to attack are neutered by really, really rotten optical effects. I know that I’ve already made this point about other Hammer films, but it bears repeating – really bad special effects in a great film don’t necessarily ruin it, but they do pull you out of the moment and there is really no excuse for this – Hammer could and had done better than this in earlier movies.
The special effects are, of course, the subject of renewed controversy now because of Hammer’s odd – and I might say brave – decision to update the film a few years ago. The new version tweaks these and other effects in a surprising George Lucas style spot of digital revisionism. In truth, it’s nothing that dramatic – but unusually, there are several moments of new digitally created or revised effects in the film to improve on the original imperfections. These are most obvious in this scene – the spider is made much more effective, the arrival (and facial close-up) of The Angel of Death arguably less so (simply because they are more obvious digitally created). None of these changes alters the dramatic thrust of the film, and I’d argue that even the most questionable are actually improvements over what was there to begin with – Hammer purists, however, reacted with blistering fury to the changes. To be fair, Hammer fans have managed to find fault with most of the Blu-ray remasters, which have everything from the wrong colour grading to bad sound – but I can understand why some people might have felt a bit put out by these new alterations to a film that they had long loved. The anger was compounded by the fact that only the new version was included on the Blu-ray; having both versions on the disc might well have neutered any complaints. Notably, recent TV screenings of the film have featured the original cut – perhaps Hammer has quietly retired the ‘improved’ version.
The Devil Rides Out feels like an ‘end of an era’ film – it has the look, feel and sound of a 1960s Hammer movie, while everything that came after it feels more like their 1970s work and there is a dramatic difference in style between the two eras (personally, I’m a bigger fan of the Seventies stuff, but still have a love for the previous decade’s work). It certainly feels like the last of the traditional Hammer horrors, with its unambiguous tale of good vs evil (this is a film that ‘does God’ quite unashamedly). Hammer’s next Wheatley film, the criminally underrated To the Devil – a Daughter, was a decidedly more modern affair, with all the sex, gore and moral ambiguity that is absent here and is arguably the more interesting film. But if you were to choose one Hammer film to represent their most commercially successful era, then The Devil Rides Out should probably be the one, and if people want to call it the company’s best film of the decade, I wouldn’t put up too much of an argument.
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