Now that I’ve examined Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 occult thriller The Devil Rides Out, I can get to the main event: the 1968 movie version, which is quintessential October viewing.
The Devil Rides Out is one of the best movies to come from the Hammer House of Horrors. It was not an enormous success on its first release, either in Great Britain or the US, where 20th Century Fox retitled it The Devil’s Bride out of concern that the original sounded like a Western. The movie’s reputation grew despite of—and possibly even because of—its antique and quaint approach to Satanic thrills, which dated the film from almost the moment it came out. The Devil Rides Out arrived before an onslaught of Satanic-themed horror movies hit theaters, such as The Exorcist and The Omen. Compared to them, the Hammer movie seems tame and quaint with its 1929 setting and fully clothed “orgies.”
But The Devil Rides Out retains the power to impress with its suspense scenes, great performances from hero and villain, and the usual robust direction from Terence Fisher. I don’t think it’s the best film from either Hammer or Fisher, as some other fans claim. (I think Fisher went one better the next year with Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.) But it’s definitely excellent Hammer Horror, and some of its sequences are masterful. Being a touch “classical” gave the movie a longer life than many of the Hammer films that followed it, when the studio was chasing the new horror vogue inspired by the other Satan-worshipper movie of 1968, Rosemary’s Baby.
Actor Christopher Lee was the prime mover behind getting The Devil Rides Out made. Lee was a fan of Wheatley’s novel and knew the author personally, and he had urged executive producer Anthony Hinds to tackle the material since 1963. The studio balked at making a movie based on Satanism and black magic, fearing “ecclesiastical wrath” as well as the scythes of the prudes at the British Board of Film Censors. But by the end of the decade, the studio finally thought they could get the movie made. Hammer’s best director of Gothics, Terence Fisher, was brought on, and Lee was cast as the heroic Duc de Richleau. US-American author Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone and I Am Legend fame) wrote the screenplay to replace an earlier draft from John Hunter that Hinds deemed “too British.”
The screenplay adheres closely to Wheatley’s story of the Duc de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn (Simon Greene, dubbed by Patrick Allen) trying to save their friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) from the clutches of a society of wealthy Satan-worshippers under the leadership of their dark priest, Mocata (Charles Gray). Matheson’s script strips away the more outrageous trappings of the book, such as the idea that Mocata will try to start a world war using Simon and the Talisman of Set, eliminates the cross-continental chase finale, and trims much of Wheatley’s exposition about black magic, letting the visuals of the ceremonies carry the idea. The finale, although it defaults to Wheatley’s “clean slate” wrap-up, is a far tenser and action-filled ending than the novel’s rush to get to Greece.
Director Fisher orchestrates some superb scenes: Mocata hypnotizing Marie Eaton (Sarah Lawson) while commanding Tanith (Niké Arrighi) to stab Rex. De Richleau and Rex crashing an auto through a Satanic celebration to seize Simon and destroy a devil manifestation. A weird car pursuit where Mocata summons magic to slow down Rex’s car. The astonishing stand-off in the Eatons’ house against a black magic barrage.
This last scene may be the best thing that Fisher ever directed. A giant spider replaces the slug-thing from the book, which was probably a budget necessity. But the entrance of the Angel of Death upon horseback is a jaw-dropping moment, done through an optical effect that leaps off the screen. The camerawork and editing pushes the action directly into the eyes of the viewers, which not only increases the feeling of an assault but helps disguise the more mundane reality of an asthmatic horse with glued-on wings.
As the Duc de Richleau, Christopher Lee gets to play one of his rare hero roles, and he uses the sinister charisma that made him famous for villains to create a stunning characterization. Tony Hinds originally wanted Lee to play Mocata, but Lee understood he could turn his commanding presence into a fascinating hero. Lee is mesmerizing and intimidating; even though he’s younger than the De Richleau of the novel, he acts with a wisdom that makes him seem far senior to Rex, Simon, and the Eatons who join him in his battle against evil. It’s one of the finest performances in Lee’s career: he’s just sinister enough, almost a villain, to bring a special dark power to a heroic role.
But with Lee playing the hero, what to do about casting a villain who could possibly measure up as a threat? One early idea Hammer had was to cast Gert Frobe, a.k.a. Auric Goldfinger, to play Mocata. He would have to be dubbed, but Hammer dubbed people all the time, often without much reason. For example, Patrick Allan dubbed Leon Greene—an opera singer!—in The Devil Rides Out, and nobody involved with the film could remember why, including star Sarah Lawson, who was married to Patrick Allan.
Hammer eventually chose Charles Gray to play Mocata, an actor who would go on to play a Bond villain himself a few years later in Diamonds Are Forever. Gray brings genteel snobbery and oiliness to the part, which is the ideal way to create opposition to the stern sincerity of Christopher Lee’s Duke. Mocata is a mocking, pompous jerk, but Gray knows how to turn on the hypnotic intensity when necessary. He is superb during the scene where Mocata attempts to mesmerise Marie Eaton, after which he delivers one of the most frightening lines in Hammer Horror: “I shall not be back. But something else will.” This terse threat comes from Matheson. In the book, Mocata’s parting shot is more verbose and less barbed: “Then I shall send the messenger of death to your house tonight and he shall take Simon from you—alive or dead.”
Director Terence Fisher was proud of The Devil Rides Out, but he felt the romantic subplot between Tanith and Rex was a problem. “The love angle was very superficial. I don’t know why, probably my fault,” Fischer recalled. “The relationship between Niké Arrighi and Leon Greene never develops as it should have. The film would have been much stronger if it had.” Richard Matheson also wasn’t happy with the romance, but he felt it was the fault of the actors. I don’t agree: Leon Greene, dubbed voice and all, is fine in the beefy hero role, and Niké Arrighi, a model, has exotic beauty and an intense stare that fits the part. The problem is that it’s difficult to have these characters break through when the audience is more invested in the Satanic elements and a battle between good and evil portrayed by screen-conquering actors. I’m unsure what Fisher or the actors could’ve done to make this work better, and it ultimately doesn’t hurt the movie much.
Hammer’s regular composer James Bernard provided arguably the best score of his career for the studio. Bernard took the syllables of the title to compose a powerful rising theme over the main credits and uses it as the leitmotif over moments when Mocasta exercises his black magic powers. The music serves an important storytelling function, making the audience feel the influence of Mocata’s sorcery and mesmerism when they might otherwise be unclear. The score must have meant a great deal to Bernard personally, since he requested that the ethereal cue “Awakening and Absolution” from the finale be played at his funeral. A lovely choice, as it’s a highlight of his compositional career and as evocative as its title implies.
Audiences didn’t flock to the film when it premiered, although it was still profitable for the studio. But one person who was thrilled was Dennis Wheatley. He sent a telegram to Terence Fisher and a letter to Richard Matheson to congratulate them on their work. He didn’t feel so sanguine about Hammer’s other adaptations of his books: 1968’s The Lost Continent (based on his 1938 novel Uncharted Seas) and 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter. He hated the latter so much because of how much it modernized and changed his novel that he denied Hammer the rights to any more of his books. This was a minor issue, since Hammer stopped making horror films after 1976 and Wheatley died in 1977. In fairness to Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter is a bad movie, although not because of changes to its source material. It’s simply lifeless. Trying to update to mid-‘70s horror, Hammer made a film far less vivid than the more stately The Devil Rides Out.
Although Christopher Lee had immense affection for The Devil Rides Out, he often talked about how much he wanted to appear in a remake with modern special effects so he could play Duc de Richleau closer to his age from the book. Since Lee’s death in 2015, any appeal of a remake has gone up in ceremonial smoke. The novel’s simplistic good vs. evil conflict and antiquated views of the occult wouldn’t work on screen as anything more than a vintage curiosity unless the story underwent a major rehaul—and then it wouldn’t be The Devil Rides Out. The 1968 movie retains timeless watchability, so without Christopher Lee around to take another shot at playing the Duke, we can leave well enough alone. It’s not like we lack for Satanic-themed horror films today, for which we can partially thank The Devil Rides Out.
The Blu-ray situation
The Devil Rides Out was first made available on DVD from Anchor Bay in a double-feature with Rasputin the Mad Monk. This DVD went out of production in the early 2000s and the film entered a long period of home video limbo, a fate it shared with most of the Hammer films in the 20th Century Fox catalogue. Shout! Factory has now given The Devil Rides Out the Blu-ray it deserves with a new 2K scan of the interpositive from 20th Century Fox.
We have a rare situation where the US home video release of a Hammer movie is superior to the UK one. In 2012 StudioCanal did a digital restoration of the film for Blu-ray that made alterations to the visual effects. There was some justification for these changes, since budget restrictions left several effects in the original release unfinished. The digital tweaks—which include flames around the head of the Angel of Death and improved lightning bolts during the climax—integrate into the film’s vintage without looking like modern CGI. But I still don’t like this type of tampering if the original presentation isn’t also available, and the UK Blu-ray only had the altered version. The Shout! Factory disc has solved the problem by giving us a new, untampered transfer and including the StudioCanal one as an extra, although the packaging doesn’t mention it and the menu lists it simply as “The Devil Rides Out 1.66.” (Odd, since both transfers are in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.)
Even ignoring the situation with the FX, the new Shout! Factory transfer is visually superior, with stronger colors and contrast compared to the 2012 restoration. The only drawback is that it uses the US theatrical release title, The Devil’s Bride, on the opening credits.
The Blu-ray includes a commentary track with Christopher Lee and Sarah Lawson that was recorded for the Anchor Bay DVD. This is one of the best commentaries I’ve heard because Lee is a gusher of knowledge and enthusiasm, showing himself quite as prepared to battle the occult as De Richleau himself.